UC Berkeley professor emeritus Elwyn Berlekamp dies at 78

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Elwyn Berlekamp, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus in mathematics and electrical engineering and computer sciences, or EECS, died April 9 at his home in Piedmont, California from complications of pulmonary fibrosis. He was 78.

Known to be a genius in many areas, Berlekamp’s work garnered much acclaim and was foundational to the field of computer science. He also provided extended support to his former students and colleagues, many of whom are now distinguished professors and scientists.

“Genius is not a word that we throw around frequently in our department, but Elwyn would be our candidate,” said David Patterson, professor emeritus in the EECS department. “He would move into new areas and be a world leader in them very quickly.”

Some of his achievements include his work in creating error-correcting codes — which allowed for the spacecraft, including the Hubble Space Telescope, to send images back to Earth — and producing a code that is able to correct the scratches in CD-ROMs, among other digital formats.

“Behind all electronic communications and storage, you’ll find error-detecting and error-correcting codes based on algorithms he invented, ” said David Wolfe, Berlekamp’s former doctoral student and co-author of some of his books, in an email.

Originally from Ohio, Berlekamp moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He then joined UC Berkeley’s faculty in 1964 as an assistant professor and returned to campus in 1971 to become a professor in mathematics and EECS. After a half-time appointment beginning in 1983, Berlekamp retired in 2002.

Berlekamp also founded Cyclotomics in the 1970s, which is a research and engineering firm that specializes in developing high-performance error-control systems for digital communications and mass data storage.

In 1984, Cyclotomics’ “Bit-Serial” Reed-Solomon, or R-S, encoders were adopted as the “NASA standard” for deep space communications, according to Berlekamp’s faculty website. NASA’s Voyager communication system, which reached Neptune in August 1989, uses an R-S code, as do all compact disk players.

“He was a luminary in the field, especially in the algebraic error-correcting codes that communicate deep space strobe even on a CD,” said Amit Sahai, Berlekamp’s former student and computer science professor at UCLA.

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Many of his former students and companions remember Berlekamp’s love of games, which was reflected in his work and teachings. Some of his research involved combinatorial game theory; games kept the “child alive in him,” according to his former master’s thesis student and campus EECS teaching professor Dan Garcia.

Patterson said Berlekamp would go out of his way to help his students further their research and added that Berlekamp had a “gift” for recognizing talent and nurturing it.

“His influence on me went far beyond academics,” Wolfe said in an email. “He was a life mentor to me.”

Contact Sarah Chung at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sarahchungdc.