Solomon Wolf Golomb, USC professor, to receive top science-engineering honor

For recreation, Albert Einstein played the violin, while Solomon Wolf Golomb, an esteemed professor of engineering at USC, finds his relaxation in inventing mathematical games, such as “cheskers,” a hybrid of chess and checkers.

At work, he deals with advanced mathematical formulas that are incomprehensible to the layman but that find crucial applications in space and cellular communications, cryptography, missile guidance, radar, sonar and GPS.

For these and other contributions to mathematics and science, Golomb is being awarded the Benjamin Franklin Medal, which Einstein also received and whose lists of recipients are viewed as tip sheets to future Nobel Prize winners.

In one part of his research, Golomb’s work underlies the process called CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), which, for example, allows hundreds of thousands of cell phones in the same city to communicate at the same time.

Another of Golomb’s research areas is encryption, and he was asked during an interview whether his work might help in deciphering the seemingly unbreakable encrypted messages that some terrorists have been able to use to communicate with
one another.

Golomb said that his own research wasn’t applicable to that problem, but noted that some of the most advanced work in this field was being conducted in Israel, particularly at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

“In general, it is very difficult to break an encrypted message in real time, while it is being transmitted, but if the message can be recorded and then analyzed, we should be able to decipher it,” he said.

His own ties to Israel are close, Golomb said, and he has visited the country more than 30 times and speaks Hebrew fluently.

Golomb also serves on the International Board of Governors of the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology, and locally and nationally is affiliated with the American Technion Society.

On the USC campus, he is a member of both Hillel and Chabad and supports closer ties between the two groups, which now include joint Erev Shabbat services twice a year.

The son and grandson of rabbis from Vilna, the capital of Lithuania, Golomb annually reads from the Torah at the campus High Holy Days services at Hillel.

Golomb was born in Baltimore, graduated from Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities, and subsequently became a leader in military and space communications at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

He joined the USC electrical engineering and mathematics faculties in 1963, where, at 83, he continues working. He holds the Andrew and Ema Viterbi Chair in the Viterbi School of Engineering, the latter endowed with a $52 million gift by the Italian-Jewish immigrant and co-founder of Qualcomm, Inc.

Golomb continues his keen interest in the games and puzzles of “recreational mathematics,” although some people, he notes, consider the term an oxymoron, arguing that no aspect of mathematics can be defined as “recreational.” Golomb, on the other hand, maintains, “All mathematics is recreational.”

The Franklin Medal will be conferred on the USC professor in April at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, founded in 1824 “to train artisans and mechanics in the fundamentals of science.”

According to its website, “The Franklin Institute, through its awards program, seeks to provide public recognition and encouragement of excellence in science and technology.”