Before the reporters covering the Panasonic World Solar Challenge were released into the wilds of Australia, a safety officer sat them down and delivered a rapid-fire set of instructions: Remember to constantly refuel. (You might find yourself stranded 300 kilo­meters from the nearest town.) Don’t scramble around in the brush. (Australia is home to 12 of the world’s deadliest varieties of snakes.) Don’t drive at night. (You might hit a kangaroo.)

Associate Editor Sandra Upson [above], preparing for her solo trek across the continent, began to wonder whether it was such a good idea after all [see "Across the Outback on Photons Alone," in this issue]. Sure, no one knew which of the solar cars would successfully reach Adelaide, 3000 km away. But would she get that far? Mildly terrified, she stopped by a grocery store to pick up a dozen cans of Red Bull.

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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
Photo of Jacob Ziv
Photo: Rami Shlush

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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