Genius

I first met Dr. Irving Reed as I was completing my graduate work at the University of Southern California.  The class he was teaching, Information Theory and Coding, was required for my major, Communication Sciences.   Dr. Reed was tall, thin … almost gaunt … and distinguished, his usually pensive face often lighted with what appeared to be a bemused smile.  I would eventually learn that his slim physique reflected a regimen of running every day, even though he was seventy years old.  He was a less than excellent teacher, prone to monotone monologues on difficult subjects like finite arithmetic and to losing himself in theoretical derivations at the blackboard.  Partway through the semester, we encountered Reed-Solomon codes, the most widely used system for protecting the integrity of both stored and transmitted data.  Yes, he was that Reed and also the Reed in Reed-Muller codes.  I began to realize how fortunate I was to be learning from Dr. Reed.  At some point, when he came to know my last name (the same as his), he began to refer to me as his long-lost nephew.  Eventually,  I asked him to be on my doctoral committee.  During my oral examinations, most of my committee members asked me questions requiring complex derivations at the blackboard but Dr. Reed asked me one question that kept me sweating for almost half an hour.   In the end, it was the most exquisitely simple and fundamental of questions, requiring only a two word answer.   An emphasis on fundamentals was typical of Dr. Reed’s approach.

Unless you’ve been part of the arcane world of communications and information theory, you’ve likely never heard of Irving Reed but it is very likely that he has touched your life through his innovations.   The Reed-Solomon Codes were critical to the effectiveness of data storage systems, from CDs to space communication systems.  His work in data transfer languages led  to the design of the first microprocessors, enabling the personal computers we take for granted today.  He authored many of the key papers in radar design and performance.  His work in data compression led to the jpeg coding of images and the rapid transmission of messages in the original America Online.   Interestingly, most of these inventions were made by Dr. Reed long before the technology existed to build them.

Yesterday, I heard from my business partner that Irving Reed had passed away on September 11, 2012 at the age of 88.  These days, our society is prone to hyperbole, applying the term Genius to everything from rap artists to football players.  True Genius reflects a level of accomplishment that few of us achieve, not some artificial threshold of IQ that qualifies us for membership in Mensa.  Dr. Irving Reed was a bona fide Genius and a gentleman. I feel privileged to have known … and studied with … him.  You can read USC’s tribute to him here.

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One Comment on “Genius”


  1. Oh no. I am terribly sorry for your loss. And I believe you are privileged having known him and studied with him.


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