Gene Golub, a founding faculty member of Computer Science Department, dies


Gene Golub

Gene H. Golub, a professor emeritus who helped found the Stanford Computer Science Department in the 1960s, died Nov. 16, at Stanford Hospital, a few days after being diagnosed with leukemia. He was 75.

Golub was known as a pioneer in the field of numerical analysis, creating algorithms and software that allowed researchers to run engineering and science calculations on computers. A large, outgoing man, he had a reputation for generosity to his students and colleagues at Stanford and around the world. A frequent scientific traveler, he was returning home from Hong Kong when he fell ill.

Earlier this year, Golub was nominated for the Turing Award, often described as the Nobel Prize of computing. The nomination cited, among other accomplishments, his contributions to matrix computations, a subject with profound importance for solving complex problems such as predicting the weather, studying the stability of structures, and finding oil deposits.

"Our community has lost its foremost member," said Cleve Moler, another recognized leader in numerical analysis and the founder of MathWorks, a company that produces software for technical computing and design.

Golub was born in Chicago in 1932, the son of parents who immigrated from Latvia and the Ukraine. His intellectual blossoming began in high school. "My brother had an interest in almost everything," Al Golub said from his home in Chicago.

After earning three mathematics degrees from the University of Illinois (bachelors, masters and PhD) and working a couple of brief jobs, Golub arrived at Stanford as a visiting assistant professor in the computer science "division" in 1962.Thus began a relationship that lasted until his death 45 years later.

"How fortunate he was to have found a niche he was suited for. He found Stanford, or Stanford found him," said Al Golub. "Very few of us can say, Gee, this is what I was born to do, like this is the only girl I've ever loved."

In 1964, Golub created an algorithm for computing what's known as the singular value decomposition, or SVD. The algorithm is used in a variety of applications, including search engines, signal processing and data analysis. It is sometimes called the "Swiss Army knife" of numerical computation for its versatility.

"We'll always remember him as "Professor SVD," said Professor Michael Saunders, a Golub graduate student and later colleague and friend. Saunders listed numerical analysis terms that always will be associated with Golub: the QR method for least squares; SVD; generalized CG; separable least squares; total least squares; moments and quadrature.

Ed Feigenbaum, computer science professor emeritus, worked with Golub in the early days of the department, following its launch in 1965 by George Forsythe. Feigenbaum remembers Golub going out of his way to write letters of recommendation for students. He was chair of the Computer Science Department from 1981 to 1984.

"He was a very lively guy, a teacher who was fun to talk to out of class," said Computer Science Professor John Mitchell, who took an undergraduate course from Golub in the 1970s.

"He was one of the people who nurtured the field and traveled around the world bringing people together as a catalyst," said Don Knuth, computer science professor emeritus. With Charles Van Loan, Golub wrote one of the best-known textbooks in the field.

Despite his success, Golub sometimes felt weighed down by a sense of sadness, according to Knuth and other friends. In those times, he turned to his Stanford circle of friends for support. "The truth of the matter is, the school was his family," said Al Golub.

Last week Golub was scheduled to travel to Zurich to receive an honorary doctorate from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Although he had been awarded 10 other honorary degrees from a variety of institutions, he was particularly excited about his upcoming trip to Switzerland, according to Leah Friedman, a friend.

After Golub's death, Joe Grcar, a member of the Center for Computational Sciences and Engineering at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratoy, posted this memorial:

"I can see him in his office or home surrounded by students and younger researchers and hear him tell me that this interaction was what he cherished most. Yet when living memory of him passes, the algorithms he created will continue to be used, probably indefinitely."

Gene Golub was buried in Chicago. Memorial donations may be made to Hadassah, North Shore Chapter, 1724 First Street, Highland Park, IL 60035. For more information, phone 847-255-3520.

A memorial website has been created at

A memorial service in Palo Alto has been tentatively scheduled for Feb. 29, Golub's birthday. "He's the only person we've known who was born on Feb. 29. Gene would have been happy with that," said his friend, Michael Saunders.