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Sol Golomb

Photo by Irene Fertik

University Professor Solomon Wolf Golomb, a specialist in communications theory whose work has become a key tool in applications ranging from radar to cellular telephones, has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

He was already a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Golomb is holder of the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Chair in Communications in the USC School of Engineering. He came to USC in 1963, and has served in numerous academic capacities, both in the School of Engineering and university wide.

“In his 40 years at USC, Sol has exemplified academic excellence of every kind. He is not only a great scientist but also a truly collegial faculty member,” said C. L. Max Nikias, dean of USC’s engineering school.

“A researcher of his caliber would be a standout member of the faculty of any university in the world. He chose to spend almost his entire career, and do most of his best work, at USC, and both we and the world of science are richer for it,” Nikias said.

Golomb also holds an appointment in the USC College of Letters, Arts & Sciences’ department of mathematics. News of his election to the NAS was hailed by USC College Dean Joseph Aoun.

“This is wonderful news for us because it verifies what we have been saying: Our faculty are world class,” said Aoun.

“Sol’s election marks the third year in a row that college faculty have been so honored. Richard Easterlin was elected last year and Michael Waterman the year before,” he said.

The election of Golomb brings to 11 the number of USC faculty who are members of the NAS; nine are in the college, while Golomb’s colleague Robert E. Hellwarth now shares with Golomb the rare distinction of membership in both the NAS and the NAE. Andrew Viterbi, a member of the USC board of trustees who studied with Golomb, is also a member of both academies. The USC trio are part of a select group of only 141 scientists in the world who hold such dual membership.

“I’m thrilled at Sol’s election to the National Academy of Sciences,” said Viterbi. “I’m glad to welcome him into the small but select group of information theorists in this distinguished institution.”

Nineteen USC faculty members from the School of Engineering, including Golomb and Hellwarth, are members of the NAE.

Golomb’s worldwide fame in communications theory rests on the continuing significance of research he began more than 40 years ago. What started as an exercise in pure mathematics has become a front-line communication tool in applications ranging from radar to cellular phones and cryptography.

In the early 1950s, Golomb, then a graduate student at Harvard University, began investigating the algebraic structure and possible signal-carrying applications of a mathematical curiosity known as shift register sequences, seemingly random strings of ones and zeros that actually exhibit a hidden, subtle order.

A digital electronic message, he realized, could be modulated into a shift register sequence produced at a transmitting device. He saw that if the same sequence were built into the receiver, it would be possible to receive much fainter signals than would otherwise be detectable.

The shift register sequence, in effect, repeats the signal over time, so that more total signal energy can be concentrated at the receiver. Ongoingly, the true signal builds while the random noise largely cancels itself out.

When Golomb was supervising communications research at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1961, he demonstrated the feasibility of his idea in spectacular fashion: The technique was used to detect a radar signal bounced off Venus, becoming the first successful contact with another planet.

Another property of signals modulated by shift register sequences is that their energy is spread over a wide band of the frequency spectrum, allowing more efficient use of the band to carry information. Since the early 1960s, many kinds of radar and military communications systems have used shift register sequences to disguise signals.

One of the most eminent researchers and developers in the field of shift register sequence applications has been Golomb’s friend, former junior colleague and QUALCOMM founder Andrew Viterbi, inventor of the Viterbi Algorithm now used in most wireless digital communications systems. San Diego-based QUALCOMM pioneered the use of a shift register sequence-based technique called Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), which is its current standard for digital cellular telephony.

In addition to Golomb’s classic work in developing the study of shift register sequences – both as a practical communications’ tool and as a mathematical discipline – he enjoys an international reputation as an expert on puzzles and mathematical games.

He is the inventor and acknowledged master of a popular puzzle game called polyominoes, in which a small number of puzzle pieces are used to tile surfaces or create patterns. A new edition of his classic book on the subject appeared in 1995. Golomb has contributed to many other puzzle areas as well.

Martin Gardner, the puzzle columnist who ran the Mathematical Games page of Scientific American for many years, paid tribute to Golomb in a recent retrospective on the column. Golomb himself for years contributed a mathematical game column to the Los Angeles Times.

Golomb was the first USC faculty member elected to the National Academy of Engineering. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), as well as a foreign member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences.

Golomb earned his bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and his master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard, all in mathematics.

He worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena from 1956 to 1963. Throughout his career, he has served as a consultant to numerous government agencies, including NASA, the U.S. Army and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

At USC, Golomb was president of the Faculty Senate from 1976 to 1977 and vice provost for research from 1986 to 1989. In 1985, he was awarded USC’s of the Presidential Medallion. It is the highest honor the university bestows on a member of the USC community.

In 1993, he was awarded the title of University Professor, an honor reserved for professors who have made significant contributions to USC in many disciplines.

Golomb has received numerous medals, awards and honorary degrees in recognition of his many research accomplishments. In 1985, he received the Shannon Award, named for the late Claude E. Shannon, the creator of modern communications theory. The Shannon Award is the highest honor bestowed by the IEEE’s Information Theory Society.

The National Academy of Sciences is a private organization of scientists and engineers dedicated to the furtherance of science and its use for the general welfare. It was established in 1863 by a congressional act of incorporation, signed by Abraham Lincoln, which calls on the academy to act as an official adviser to the federal government, upon request, in any matter of science or technology.

On April 29 the academy announced the election of 72 new members and 18 foreign associates from 11 countries in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.

Contact Bob Calverley at (213) 740-4750.

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