Stanford Report May 17th 2007 - IEEE Medal of Honor
by David Orenstein
Stanford electrical engineering
Professor Emeritus Thomas Kailath is like an intellectual knight whose quests
have taken him to the fore of many electrical engineering fields, with
mathematics—largely self-taught— as his sword. Now, for vanquishing some of his
discipline’s greatest challenges, he is poised to receive the Medal of Honor,
the highest award of the IEEE, the world’s foremost electrical engineering
"Many of us have met individuals who have made deep contributions in specific technical fields, or had a major impact on industry, or had a major impact on their academic discipline or educated the leaders of the future,” says Jim Plummer, Dean of the Stanford School of Engineering. “Tom is essentially unique in that he has done all of these things at the very highest levels.”
Kailath will receive the medal in Philadelphia next July. IEEE gives the award for “an exceptional contribution or an extraordinary career in the IEEE fields of interest.” In Kailath’s case, IEEE announced this week that it is recognizing his “exceptional development of powerful algorithms in the fields of communications, computing, control, and signal processing."
A career in ‘mathematical engineering’
Kailath has covered a lot of ground —taking on a new field about once a decade, and soon reaching the frontiers in each of them— but he has always carried the banner of mathematical engineering. This approach seeks to solve practical problems by first making a simplified mathematical model, finding exact or approximate mathematical solutions and then modifying them for physical implementation with the available tools. Kailath’s preference for the abstract simplicity of mathematical solutions has nevertheless always had an engineer’s practical bent. “Pure math, of which I have done some, doesn’t interest me for very long. I like the math to solve a problem that has some potential for application.” Nevertheless, he has been honored by mathematicians as well.
One of the most recent contributions of his research group is a widely used advance in the way chip manufacturers use light to make circuit patterns on silicon wafers. To make the patterns, manufacturers shine high frequency light through a stencil, or mask, onto light-sensitive chemicals on the wafer. The patterns must be exquisitely precise, but there are always imperfections in the optics that project the light. But using a combination of ideas and techniques from communication systems and signal processing, Kailath and his students figured out how the masks could be systematically “pre-distorted” to compensate for these limitations and produce the desired patterns despite them. “This is mathematically a highly nonlinear inverse problem,” he says. “You know what you want on the wafer, you know the characteristics of the light source and the lens system, and you have to find what kind of mask will do the job.” Kailath co-founded a company, Numerical Technologies (now part of Synopsys), to see the math through to practical application for the semiconductor industry.
Kailath’s devotion to mathematics was hardly apparent when he was growing up in Pune, India in the 1940s. He was a strong student but mostly for his language skills. When he got to high school his math teacher simply assumed that his overall high marks meant proficiency in math. To meet those expectations, Kailath crammed and drilled until he had developed such a fluency with math that he actually came to appreciate it.
This feeling was enhanced when in 1949, he read an article in Popular Science about the then emerging field of information theory, developed by the legendary engineer and mathematician (and IEEE Medal of Honor recipient), Claude Shannon. This fascination ultimately led Kailath to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Shannon was a professor, for his graduate studies in the late fifties. He says he feels lucky to have been there when MIT was at the center of a “golden age” of communication and information theory. Among the many awards he has won, Kailath is particularly happy that the IEEE Shannon Award is one.
He received his Sc.D. from MIT in 1961. Less than two years later, after a stay at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in a group where pioneering contributions were made in digital communications, Kailath was recruited by Stanford’s then provost, Fred Terman, to join Stanford as an associate professor of electrical engineering. He became a full professor in 1968 and is currently Hitachi America Professor of Engineering, emeritus.
‘A huge number of friends’
As a professor, Kailath has always been close to his students both in research and teaching. He has mentored more than a 100 doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers. Two of them, John Cioffi and Arogyaswami Paulraj, have since joined him as colleagues at Stanford and as members of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering.
“Speaking as one of his many PhD advisees over the years but I suspect for most, I would say Tom Kailath is more of a father than just an advisor,” says Cioffi. “He continues to look after the interests of his former students carefully, decades after they've graduated. His group just has to have been more successful than any academic group in electrical engineering history. That is a tremendous credit to Tom, his energy, his intelligence, and his encouragement.”
As Kailath would move into new areas he would select students and postdocs with whom he could learn as well as teach. By now, the broad swath of electrical engineering that he has covered has brought him more than a hefty list of publications and honors. “It has given me a huge number of friends in many, many different fields,” he says. Of course, with the recent news of the IEEE Medal of Honor, this has meant sending thank you notes to friends all over the world.