I read with great sadness in the New York Times over the weekend that Professor Jack Wolf passed away at the age of 76 a short time ago.
Professor Wolf was the IEEE 2004 recipient of the Richard W. Hamming Medal, the citation for which reads that he was "one of the most productive cross-fertilizers in engineering research, successfully importing techniques used in one field to obtain unexpected results in another. Among his and his students' achievements are contributions to the design and analysis of satellite and cellular communication systems, and hard disk drives."
In addition, a notice of his passing at the University of California San Diego where Dr. Wolf was a professor of electrical and computer engineering since 1984 states that:
"In the 1980s, Wolf was instrumental in bringing a technique known as maximum likelihood detection to the field of data storage. Essentially every hard disk drive, tape drive, and DVD player made in the last 20 years uses some form of this technology."
While his honors were numerous (for instance, a IEEE Life Fellow, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of both the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and Sciences and a Guggenheim Fellow to name just a few) and his contributions many (one being the Slepian-Wolf theory for correlated information sources), I will remember Professor Wolf for always having a smile on his face and as being one of the most approachable Electrical and Computer Systems Engineering Department faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he taught from 1973 to 1984. He was a favorite professor of both undergraduate and graduates students in the department, and gave his time freely to both.
Another reason for his popularity was that Professor Wolf had a unique and often funny way of explaining complex engineering and especially mathematical concepts that even I and my fellow students, who could be more than a bit slow on the uptake at times, would easily understand.
I asked Dr. Harold Stone (IEEE Life Fellow, ACM Fellow), who was a colleague of Dr. Wolf at UMass, to comment on Dr. Wolf's contributions. Dr. Stone wrote:
"His legacy comprises both his remarkable accomplishments and the talented people who matured under his mentorship. He had an uncanny ability to isolate a key idea and explain it with clarity and simplicity. His students and colleagues alike were inspired by his brilliance, wit, and charm."
You can see for yourself Dr. Wolf's brilliance, wit and charm come through in his 2010 IEEE Information Theory Society Padovani Lecture titled, "Can an Information Theorist Be Happy in a Center for Information Storage?"
Dr. Wolf's contributions will last for many decades to come through his own work and that of his many, many undergraduate and graduate students who were fortunate enough to be taught by him.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.