Logo: University of Southern California

President Obama Awards the National Medal of Science to a USC Viterbi School Legend

Communications pioneer and mathematical genius Solomon Golomb receives the nation’s top honor for scientists
By: Robert Perkins
February 01, 2013 —
Photo credit: Ryan K Morris/National Science & Technology Medals Foundation

On Feb. 1, one of USC’s most decorated faculty members received the highest honor bestowed by the United States for scientific innovation.

President Barack Obama presented Solomon Golomb, university and distinguished professor of electrical engineering and mathematics, with the National Medal of Science for his advances in mathematics and communications at an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.

“Sol Golomb is such a deserving recipient of this tremendously prestigious honor,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias. “His many contributions to mathematics and engineering span more than five decades, and his mathematical coding schemes have advanced a number of important projects, including the imagery we received from Mars. USC is so proud to have been Professor Golomb’s academic home all these years.”

The official citation that was given to him by the president praises his work on shift register sequences, random-looking sequences of 0’s and 1’s that actually have important, though hidden, mathematical structures that make them useful in a wide variety of applications from radar to cell phone systems to space communications.

“My research has always been directed by working on problems that I found interesting and challenging, and that I believed I had a chance to solve. I have never thought about receiving awards for my work, but it is always a pleasant surprise when they occur,” said Golomb, who just completed his 50th year of teaching at USC.

From Left to Right: John Damoulakis, Preston Marshall, John O’Brien, Yannis Yortsos, Solomon Golomb, Raghu Raghavendra, Jerry Kohlenberger, Randall Hall,
Alexander Sawchuk, Janet Kohlenberger

Golomb, who has joint appointments with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, was among 12 scientists and engineers so honored by the president this year. He joins the rarefied ranks of about 400 individuals who have received the award since John F. Kennedy bestowed in 1963 the first National Medal of Science on famed aerospace engineer Theodore von Kármán.

At the same ceremony, USC Dornsife alumnus Rangaswamy Srinivasan of the IBM Corporation was presented with the National Medal of Technology.

“It is most gratifying to recall that the work that I did at USC Dornsife on the chemistry of proteins for my Ph. D. thesis under the supervision of professor Sidney W. Benson was the source of my inspiration 25 years later to study the interaction of animal tissue with the pulsed radiation from an ultraviolet, excimer laser,” Srinivasan said.

“On that day in November 1981, I was amazed to find that the tissue was not ‘zapped’ as was the expectation among the laser scientists but smoothly etched away, layer-by-layer, to leave a microscopic channel. It took another 15 years before these observations would be developed as a medically-acceptable surgical technique for the reshaping of the human cornea. This is the process that is known today in all the developed countries as LASIK eye surgery,” he said.

In receiving the National Medal of Science, Golomb follows in the footsteps of USC alumnus Andrew Viterbi, namesake of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. Viterbi, who received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering in 1962, was mentored by Golomb when they were colleagues at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

“These men and women of the 20th and now 21st Century embody passion, brilliance, creativity, risk, and determination,” states the National Science and Technology Medals Foundation’s website. “Their achievements have inspired new knowledge, shaped cultural revolutions, and driven world economies.”

Golomb earned his BA at Johns Hopkins University, completing a four-year degree program in 21 months with an A average. He finished the day before his 19th birthday. After completing his PhD in Mathematics at Harvard, Golomb spent a year in Norway as a Fulbright Fellow and then returned to the States to work at JPL. Then, in 1963, he took a job at USC.

Golomb said that he came to USC because “I believed that at USC I had a chance to make a difference, and to help it achieve its potential; and I stayed because there has been steady progress on this path – in fact, more than I could have imagined 50 years ago.”

“Sol Golomb is the quintessence of the Viterbi school. He symbolizes what is best in mathematics, and its application to engineering and other disciplines. He has contributed mightily to the school’s impressive ascent in the last several decades. We are very proud of his distinctions and achievements and celebrate with him his triumphs in science and engineering ” said Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of USC Viterbi.

The announcement of Golomb’s National Medal of Science follows closely upon his receipt the Sigma Xi William Procter Prize for Scientific Achievement and his selection as a member of the inaugural class of fellows of the American Mathematical Society.

Golomb is also a recipient of the USC Presidential Medallion, the National Security Agency Director’s Medal, the IEEE Shannon Award of the Information Theory Society, the Hamming Medal and three honorary doctorate degrees. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Golomb attributes his success to taking a practical approach to abstract—or “pure”—mathematics.

“My professors at Harvard took great pride in claiming that the subjects they were teaching were so ‘pure’ that they had no possible practical applications,” he said. “My own approach to studying even the most abstract areas of mathematics was always to have one or more specific instances in mind.”

The areas of mathematics that held Golomb’s fascination turned out to have highly practical applications for the emerging digital world. Once modern computing was unlocked by the invention of the transistor, Golomb’s expertise in “coded communications” and abstract mathematics put him very much in demand.

“It helped that I always tried to think of the applications in the engineering context—and I was always willing to learn enough of the engineering application to be able to do this—so that whatever solutions I came up with made practical sense,” he said. “Over time, I gained enough of a reputation that people I had never met sought me out with interesting practical problems that I had the ability to solve.”

When Golomb began his career 60 years ago, communications engineering was in its nascent stages. Now, he said, the “easy” problems have long since been solved. Cell phones and the Internet have transformed society, and created their own new challenges. Still pushing the boundaries of science at USC, Golomb now addresses questions related to multi-user communications, secure communications and cryptography.

“I continue to work on ‘old’ problems that have so far resisted attempts at solution, as well as the many new problems generated by the explosion in communications applications,” Golomb said.