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December 5, 2006

Thomas Kailath to receive electrical engineering society's highest award

By David Orenstein

Stanford electrical engineering Professor Emeritus Thomas Kailath is an intellectual knight whose quests have taken him to the fore of many electrical engineering fields, with mathematics—largely self-taught—as his sword. Now, for vanquishing some of his discipline's greatest challenges, he is poised to receive the Medal of Honor, the highest award of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a leading professional association for the advancement of technology.

"Many of us have met individuals who have made deep contributions in specific technical fields, or had a major impact on industry, or had a major impact on their academic discipline or educated the leaders of the future," says Jim Plummer, dean of the School of Engineering. "Tom is essentially unique in that he has done all of these things at the very highest levels."

Kailath will receive the medal in Philadelphia next June. IEEE presents the award annually for "an exceptional contribution or an extraordinary career in the IEEE fields of interest." In an IEEE announcement today, the society recognized Kailath for his "exceptional development of powerful algorithms in the fields of communications, computing, control and signal processing."

A career in 'mathematical engineering'

Kailath has covered a lot of ground—taking on a new field about once a decade, and quickly reaching frontiers in each of them—but he has always carried the banner of mathematical engineering. This approach seeks to solve practical problems by first making a simplified mathematical model, finding exact or approximate mathematical solutions and then modifying them to work in the physical world. Kailath's preference for the abstract simplicity of mathematical solutions has nevertheless always had an engineer's practical bent. "Pure math, of which I have done some, doesn't interest me for very long," he said. "I like the math to solve a problem that has some potential for application."

One of the most recent contributions of his research group is a widely used advance in the way chip manufacturers use light to make circuit patterns on silicon wafers. During this process, manufacturers shine short-wavelength light through a stencil, or mask, onto light-sensitive chemicals on the wafer. The patterns must be exquisitely precise, but there are always imperfections in the optics that project the light. But using a combination of ideas and techniques from communication systems and signal processing, Kailath and his students figured out how the masks could be systematically "pre-distorted" to compensate for these limitations and produce the desired patterns despite them.

Kailath co-founded a company, Numerical Technologies (now part of Synopsys), to see the math through to practical application for the semiconductor industry.

Kailath's devotion to mathematics was hardly apparent when he was growing up in Pune, India, in the 1940s. He was a strong student but mostly for his language skills. When he got to high school, his math teacher assumed that his overall high marks meant proficiency in math. To meet those expectations, Kailath crammed and drilled until he had developed a fluency with math.

His appreciation for the topic grew in 1949, when he read an article in Popular Science about the emerging field of information theory, developed by the legendary engineer and mathematician (and past IEEE Medal of Honor recipient) Claude Shannon. This fascination ultimately led Kailath to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Shannon was a professor, for his graduate studies in the late fifties. Kailath says he feels lucky to have been there when MIT was at the center of a "golden age" of communication and information theory. Among the many awards he has won, Kailath says he is particularly happy that the IEEE Shannon Award, presented by the IEEE Information Theory Society, is one.

He received his doctorate in electrical engineering from MIT in 1961. Less than two years later, after a stay at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, Calif., in a group that made pioneering contributions in digital communications, Kailath was recruited by Stanford's then provost, Fred Terman, to join Stanford as an associate professor of electrical engineering. He became a full professor in 1968 and is currently Hitachi America Professor of Engineering, Emeritus.

'A huge number of friends'

As a professor, Kailath has always been close to his students both in research and teaching. He has mentored more than 100 doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers. Two of them, John Cioffi and Arogyaswami Paulraj, have since joined him as fellow electrical engineering professors at Stanford and as members of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering.

"Speaking as one of his many PhD advisees over the years, but I suspect for most, I would say Tom Kailath is more of a father than just an adviser," says Cioffi. "He continues to look after the interests of his former students carefully, decades after they've graduated. His group just has to have been more successful than any academic group in electrical engineering history. That is a tremendous credit to Tom, his energy, his intelligence and his encouragement."

As Kailath would move into new areas he would select students and postdocs with whom he could learn as well as teach. By now, the broad swath of applied math and electrical engineering that he has covered has brought him more than a hefty list of publications and honors.

"It has given me a huge number of friends in many, many different fields," he says.

David Orenstein is the communications and public relations manager at the Stanford School of Engineering.



David Orenstein, School of Engineering: (650) 736-2245,


Thomas Kailath, Electrical Engineering: (650) 725-0434,

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