Elwyn Berlekamp R.I.P.

Elwyn Berlekamp, a UC Berkeley mathematician and game theorist whose error-correcting codes allowed spacecraft from Voyager to the Hubble Space Telescope to send accurate, detailed and beautiful images back to Earth, died April 9 at his home in Piedmont, California, from complications of pulmonary fibrosis.

A professor emeritus of mathematics and of electrical engineering and computer sciences, Berlekamp was 78.

Berlekamp was a “genius” in many areas, according to colleague Richard Karp, a UC Berkeley professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer sciences and holder of computer science’s premier honor, the Turing Award.

“He was a brilliant person, caring father, accomplished juggler and he had a great sense of humor. He’ll not be forgotten,” said David Patterson, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering and computer sciences at Berkeley who is now a distinguished engineer at Google and a Turing Award winner.

Berlekamp and his wife, Jennifer, supported various charitable causes and in 2013 founded the Elwyn and Jennifer Berlekamp Foundation, a small private operating foundation based in Oakland to support math and science outreach and education, in general, and combinatorial game theory, in particular.

Berlekamp was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the American Mathematical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received various honors, including the Centennial Medal, the Koji Kobayashi Computers and Communications Award and the R. W. Hamming Medal, all from IEEE, and was selected as Eta Kappa Nu’s “Outstanding Young Electrical Engineer” in 1971 and as a Putnam Fellow in 1961. He held more than a dozen patents, all of them now in the public domain.

His investments allowed him to reduce his teaching appointment to half time in 1982, and for the rest of his life, he concentrated on the theory of combinatorial games, the most simple example of which, Dots and Boxes, had fascinated him since first grade. He developed theories of the game that allowed him, or anyone, to always win.


Berlekamp playing games with Richard Nowakowski in 2015 following a symposium on combinatorial games, his life-long passion. (Photo courtesy of David Eisenbud)

His four-volume series, Winning Ways for Your Mathematical Plays,

written with John Conway and Richard Guy, delved into the math of Dots and Boxes and other popular games, including Amazons, a game played on a chess board with queens only.


Berlekamp playing the game Amazons with Georg Menz in 2015. Menz was that year’s Berlekamp Postdoctoral Fellow at MSRI. (Photo courtesy of David Eisenbud)

“In these books, he manages to describe deep mathematics in a way that is really enjoyable to the reader,” Karp said. “He presents it more as a narrative and explains it with real precision, but in a way that is actually charming. He was a wonderful author as well.”

One of his passions was the Asian game of Go, which he analyzed in the book Mathematical Go — one of the rare books on Go to be translated from English into Japanese, rather than vice versa. He focused on Go’s endgame, said mathematician and colleague David Eisenbud, and once challenged a top Japanese Go master to a series of endgames selected by Berlekamp. He beat the Go master in seven straight games, playing both sides of the board — white and black.

“It was mathematics against intuition, and mathematics won,” said Eisenbud, director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI). “It was an impressive demonstration of which he was very proud.”

While the mathematical analysis of games is still very popular, computers have taken the field in a different direction: they employ brute force or machine learning to beat Go and chess masters.

He is survived by his wife, Jennifer; daughters Persis Berlekamp, an art historian at the University of Chicago, and Bronwen Berlekamp O’Wril of Portland, Maine; and son David of Oakland.

Excerpts from the article Elwyn Berlekamp, game theorist and coding pioneer, dies at 78 By Robert Sanders, Media relations| April 18, 2019 in the Berkeley News. https://news.berkeley.edu/2019/04/18/elwyn-berlekamp-game-theorist-and-coding-pioneer-dies-at-78/?fbclid=IwAR2NUfFLgv7IAT-BNffgEKc3Lv8w8_XmJ2pQLPYW1vRmKPGhdpGydWAVPGQ

In a previous post I mentioned Elwyn Berlekamp (https://xpertchesslessons.wordpress.com/?s=Elwyn+Berlekamp).

These books left a lasting impression:

A nice blog post from: Computational Complexity and other fun stuff in math and computer science from Lance Fortnow and Bill Gasarch
https://blog.computationalcomplexity.org/2019/04/elwyn-berlekamp-died-april-9-2019.html

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