The Galápagos Islands, a cherished haven for nature lovers and a rarefied ­ecosystem where Charles Darwin drew inspiration for his theory of evolution, is not the place you’d expect to find a multimillion-dollar cutting-edge engineering project.

So when IEEE Spectrum Associate Editor Erico Guizzo learned that the Ecuadorian ­government, with help from the United Nations and an ­international consortium of utility companies, planned to build three massive wind turbines on San Cristóbal, the Galápagos’s easternmost island, his first thought was: This I have to see.

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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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