President Obama Awards Two USC Dornsife Pioneers
After 50 years at USC, engineering and mathematical genius Solomon Golomb receives the nation’s top honor for scientists. USC Dornsife alumnus Rangaswamy Srinivasan is awarded during the same White House ceremony.By Robert Perkins and Pamela J. Johnson
February 1, 2013
One of USC’s most decorated faculty members has 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 during a White House ceremony in Washington, D.C., Feb. 1. Golomb has joint appointments in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and USC Dornsife.
“If there’s one idea that sets this country apart, one idea that makes us different from every other nation on Earth, it’s that here in America success does not depend on where you were born or what your last name is,” Obama said, “success depends on the ideas that you can dream up, the possibilities that you envision, and the hard work — the blood, sweat and tears — that you’re willing to put in to make them real.
“Today it’s clearer than ever that our future as a nation depends on keeping that spirit of curiosity and innovation alive in our time. These honorees are at the forefront of that mission. Thanks to the sacrifices they’ve made, the chances they’ve taken — the gallons of coffee they’ve consumed — we now have batteries that power everything from cell phones to electric cars; we have a map of the human genome; new ways to produce renewable energy; we’re learning to grow organs in the lab and better understand what’s happening in our deepest oceans.
“And if that’s not enough, the people on this stage are also going to be responsible for devising a formula to tame fizzy hair as well as inspiring the game Tetris,” Obama said, ending on a reference to Golomb’s “polyominos”— geometric figures formed by joining squares to one another — which were the inspiration for the classic video game.
USC President C. L. Max Nikias said Golomb was a deserving recipient of the tremendously prestigious honor.
“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 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.
Golomb 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 1963, when John F. Kennedy bestowed the first National Medal of Science on famed aerospace engineer Theodore von Kármán.
During the same ceremony, Obama presented chemistry alumnus Rangaswamy Srinivasan of the IBM Corporation with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the nation’s highest honor for technological achievement. Srinivasan’s invention set the groundwork for laser eye surgery.
The award recognizes those who have made lasting contributions to America's competitiveness, standard of living and quality of life through technological innovation, and to recognize those who have made substantial contributions to strengthening the nation's technological workforce.
By highlighting the national importance of technological innovation, the medal is also meant to inspire future generations of Americans to prepare for and pursue technical careers to keep the nation at the forefront of global technology and economic leadership.
Earning his Ph.D. in chemistry in 1956, Srinivasan is credited with inventing an interaction between pulses of ultraviolet laser radiation and organic solid matter such as polymer (plastics) and living tissue under controlled conditions. He named his 1980 invention Ablative Photodecomposition (APD).
More than two decades later, a direct outcome of his invention is the process known as laser eye surgery or LASIK to correct visual impairments.
Srinivasan said it was gratifying to know that the work he did in USC Dornsife on the chemistry of proteins for his Ph.D. thesis under the supervision of professor Sidney W. Benson was the source of his inspiration 25 years later to study the interaction of animal tissue with the pulsed radiation from an ultraviolet, excimer laser.
“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,” Srinivasan said. “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 developed countries as LASIK eye surgery.”
By 2003, nearly 4 million people had undergone laser eye surgery. The rate is 1.5 million procedures (one per eye) each year in the U.S. The average cost of $1,800 each procedure translates to a $2.7 billion a year industry. In other countries to date, 14.7 million procedures have been performed. Srinivasan holds 20 U.S. patents — 10 of which are of commercial significance.
A member of the National Academy of Engineering and inducted into the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame, Srinivasan completed his postdoctoral work at the California Institute of Technology and the University of Rochester in New York. He worked at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, New York — headquarters for IBM research — from 1961 to 2004.
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.
“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 Web site. “Their achievements have inspired new knowledge, shaped cultural revolutions, and driven world economies.”
Golomb earned his bachelor’s 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 Ph.D. 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.
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.”
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.
He 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 in great 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 six decades 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,” Golomb said, “as well as the many new problems generated by the explosion in communications applications.”