A Powerful Idea

The back story

2 min read

In 1975, Carolyn Meinel was editing a quirky newsletter, the L5 News , devoted to discussions about space colonization. A common topic was how to get tons of materials into space cheaply, and at the time, one of the most intriguing ideas was to launch them with railguns or coilguns. These would unleash enormous electromagnetic forces to hurl payloads into orbit, in theory much more efficiently than rockets ever could.

Meinel got to witness the first public demonstration of the Mass Driver I, an early coilgun, in 1976. She was hooked. She soon met some of the key electric gun researchers, including Harry D. Fair, a physicist who struck her as being ”optimistic but also intellectually honest,” she says.

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From WinZips to Cat GIFs, Jacob Ziv’s Algorithms Have Powered Decades of Compression

The lossless-compression pioneer received the 2021 IEEE Medal of Honor

11 min read
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Photo of Jacob Ziv
Photo: Rami Shlush
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Lossless data compression seems a bit like a magic trick. Its cousin, lossy compression, is easier to comprehend. Lossy algorithms are used to get music into the popular MP3 format and turn a digital image into a standard JPEG file. They do this by selectively removing bits, taking what scientists know about the way we see and hear to determine which bits we'd least miss. But no one can make the case that the resulting file is a perfect replica of the original.

Not so with lossless data compression. Bits do disappear, making the data file dramatically smaller and thus easier to store and transmit. The important difference is that the bits reappear on command. It's as if the bits are rabbits in a magician's act, disappearing and then reappearing from inside a hat at the wave of a wand.

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