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Jack Keil Wolf, Prominent Information Theorist at UC San Diego, Dies

San Diego, CA, May 16, 2011 -- Jack Keil Wolf, a pioneer in information theory and its applications, died in La Jolla, California on May 12 at the age of 76, following a battle with cancer. A member of both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, Wolf made profound contributions to digital communication and data storage technology. Wolf served as a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC San Diego since 1984. (Read the New York Times obituary.)

“When you save data on a hard disk, the magnetic medium is imperfect. Jack’s innovations have allowed us to write and read data from these magnetic devices with near perfect fidelity. This is at the heart of the information revolution,” said Lawrence Larson, professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. “Jack was one of the deepest thinkers in terms of how you take information – ones and zeros – and make it so it can be stored or transmitted without losing its fidelity,” said Larson.

“It’s hard to overstate Jack’s role in getting the information theory community interested in data storage,” said Paul Siegel, Director of UCSD’s Center for Magnetic Recording Research (CMRR) and an electrical engineering professor at the Jacobs School of Engineering.

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Jack Keil Wolf, a pioneer in information theory and its applications, died in La Jolla, California on May 12, 2011. A member of both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, Wolf made profound contributions to digital communication and data storage technology. He served as a UC San Diego professor since 1984.

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.

“Adopting the maximum likelihood detection technology allowed hard drives to more accurately and rapidly read ones and zeros,” said Andrew Viterbi, a co-founder of Qualcomm Incorporated and president of the Viterbi Group.

Without maximum likelihood detection – and Wolf’s determined efforts through the CMRR to share and promote this technology with colleagues in industry and academia – the pace at which storage density has increased would have slowed significantly and the cost of storing data would not have dropped as dramatically, explained Dr. Hemant Thapar, a long-time colleague of Wolf’s who is Chairman and CEO of Link_A_Media Devices Corporation.

Wolf also served as a consultant and later as a part-time employee for Qualcomm for more than 25 years, and had a number of influential patents that were realized in commercial wireless communication systems. For example, Wolf developed widely used coded-modulation methods for high-speed data transmission, as well as interference cancellation techniques that improve the performance of cell-phone networks.

“Jack’s efforts led to remarkable technological and economic benefits in data storage and communications, two of the pillars of the information technology infrastructure. This is a classic case of technology improving lives and enabling the information technology revolution to continue,” said Thapar.

The Slepian-Wolf Theorem

“Jack was always interested in learning new things, and as a result he contributed to a very broad range of topics in information theory,” said Alon Orlitsky, Director of UCSD’s Information Theory and Applications Center and an electrical engineering professor at the Jacobs School of Engineering.   “His ideas were often so fundamental and profound that they have an enduring influence on both theory and practical applications.” As one recent example, work that Wolf did in the 1980s has become relevant to the challenges faced in developing improved flash memory devices. 

Of his many contributions, Wolf is perhaps best known for what has come to be called the Slepian-Wolf Theorem.  In 1973, Wolf and his colleague David Slepian published a ground-breaking paper in which they proved a fundamental theorem about the efficient compression of correlated streams of data. Surprisingly, they showed that, using the right data encoding techniques, two information sources can separately compress their individual output streams as effectively as the best possible encoder acting on both streams together.  “It’s one of the cornerstones of information theory,” said Orlitsky. Today, Slepian-Wolf coding is finding application in state-of-the-art video transmission systems and sensor network design.

The “Wolf Pack”

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An early hard disk drive. Courtesy of the UC San Diego Center for Magnetic Recording Research (CMRR).

Wolf joined the faculty at UC San Diego in 1984 and served as a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the Jacobs School of Engineering. He held an endowed chair at the Center for Magnetic Recording Research, where he led the Signal Processing Group, dubbed the “Wolf Pack.”

 “Jack was an original thinker and great fun to collaborate with. He loved teaching and was a dedicated mentor to his many graduate students. He and his wife, Toby, were famous for the warm hospitality with which they welcomed colleagues and students to frequent gatherings at their home,” said Siegel.   

“Jack and his colleagues at the CMRR produced many exceptional engineers who subsequently went into industry and hold key positions today,” said Viterbi. “One of Jack’s many great contributions to Qualcomm and the storage industry was the outstanding people he brought in.” 

A devoted husband, father, and grandfather, Wolf is survived by his wife Toby, his children, Joe, Jay, Jill, Sarah and her husband Charles, and his grandchildren, Rachel, David, Becca, AJ and Julia.

Memorial gifts may be made in the name of Jack Wolf to either UC San Diego or the University of Pennsylvania.

A fundraising initiative had been launched at UC San Diego to honor Jack with an endowed chair in his name. Gifts may be directed to the UC San Diego Foundation for the Jack Keil Wolf Endowed Chair in Electrical Engineering, fund #4671, and mailed to: UCSD, Jacobs Hall/EBUI, 7th Floor, 9500 Gilman Drive #0403, La Jolla, CA 92093-0403. Attn: Lisa French. Ms. French can be contacted at 858-246-0593 or lfrench@ucsd.edu.

Gifts to the University of Pennsylvania may be directed to the School of Engineering for The Jack Keil Wolf Scholarship Fund, and mailed to: Penn Engineering, 220 South 33rd Street, 123 Towne Building, Philadelphia, PA, 19104-6391. Attn: George Hain. Mr. Hain can be contacted at 215-898-6564 or ghain@seas.upenn.edu.

Professional Biography

Wolf received the B.S.E.E. degree from the University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, in 1956, and the M.S.E., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees from Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, in 1957, 1958, and 1960, respectively. He was a member of the Electrical Engineering Department at New York University from 1963 to 1965, and the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn from 1965 to 1973. He was Chairman of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, from 1973 to 1975, and he was Professor there from 1973 to 1984. From 1984, he was Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Stephen O. Rice Professor of Magnetics at the Center for Magnetic Recording Research at the University of California, San Diego. He also held a part-time appointment at Qualcomm, Inc., San Diego.

Wolf served on the Board of Governors of the IEEE Information Theory Group (later Society) from 1970 to 1976 and again from 1980 to 1986, and was President in 1974. He received the IEEE Information Theory Society’s Aaron D. Wyner Distinguished Service Award in 2007. He also acted as International Chairman of Committee C of URSI from 1980 to 1983.

Wolf was co-recipient with David Slepian of the 1975 IEEE Information Theory Group Paper Award for the paper “Noiseless Coding for Correlated Information Sources.” He was the recipient of the 1990 E. H. Armstrong Achievement Award of the IEEE Communications Society. He shared the 1993 IEEE Communications Society Leonard G. Abraham Prize Paper Award with Brian Marcus and Paul Siegel for the paper "Finite-State Modulation Codes for Data Storage."

In 1993, Wolf was inducted into the National Academy of Engineering, one of the highest professional honors accorded an engineer.  The Academy cited his “contributions to information theory, communication theory, magnetic recording, and engineering education.”  He was the recipient of the 1998 IEEE Koji Kobayashi Computers and Communications Award, “for fundamental contributions to multi-user communications and applications of coding theory to magnetic data storage devices.” In May 2000, he received a UCSD Distinguished Teaching Award.

In 2001, Wolf received the Claude E. Shannon Award, the highest honor bestowed by the IEEE Information Theory Society.  In 2004 he received the IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal for “fundamental contributions to the theory and practice of information transmission and storage.”  In 2005 he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  In 2006, he received the D. Robert Yarnall Award from the University of Pennsylvania Engineering School, an award presented annually to a distinguished member of Penn Engineering's alumni for outstanding contributions to the field of engineering or technology.

In 2010, Wolf was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.  He was named the co-recipient with Irwin Jacobs of the 2011 Marconi Society Prize, recognizing “lasting scientific contributions to human progress in the field of information technology.”

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