Jack Keil Wolf

Professor Yash Pal

Awarded the Marconi Prize in 2011

Jack Keil Wolf, a native of Newark, New Jersey, was born on the same date as Albert Einstein, and relished the fact that a numerical citation of his March 14 birthday – 3.14 – echoed the numerical expression of Pi.

With a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and two master’s degrees and a doctorate from Princeton University, Wolf entered the Air Force in 1960 and rose to the rank of second lieutenant. He then became an associate professor at various universities before landing in 1984 as professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, San Diego, where he eventually was named the Stephen O. Rice Professor of Magnetics at the Jacobs School of Engineering.

By then he had made an early mark in the field of information theory, devising a startling theorem with David Slepian that proved two separate streams of correlated data can be sent independently, simultaneously, and then combined and simplified when retrieved. Researchers would later use the Slepian-Wolf theorem to develop computer networks.

Wolf recalled how, when he was recruited to be the first professor at UCSD’s Center for Magnetic Recording Research, he knew so little about magnetic recording he even mispronounced the word “coercivity.” Early on, he advocated applying information and communications theory to the construction of ultra-high-density information storage. As Lawrence Larson, chair of the UCSD Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, observed: “If you think about saving data on a hard disk, the magnetic medium is imperfect. Jack’s innovations have allowed us to read data to, and write data from, these magnetic devices with near-perfect fidelity. This is at the heart of the information revolution.”

The incredible data storage capacity of today’s technology owes much to Wolf, whose work helped the industry overcome an impending “brick wall” of capacity. “You’d be amazed at the numbers back then,” Paul H. Siegel, director of UCSD’s Center for Magnetic Recording Research, said of the mid 1980s, when Wolf began his work at UCSD. “The data rate then was a blazing 24 million bits per second. Today it’s on the order of 1 billion bits per second. Jack’s work, and that of his students, helped make that leap possible.”

Colleagues and friends who reminisce about him invariably recall the generous hospitality of Wolf and his wife, Toby, as well as his wry humor. Once, when Massey was to talk at a NATO-sponsored symposium in Darlington, England, he and Wolf conspired to liven up the dry academic presentations. When Massey concluded his presentation, Wolf rose and declared, “I’ve made a list of the 40 or 50 factual mistakes contained in this talk, but first let me just say in summary that this is the worst talk I’ve ever heard!” As the audience gaped in stunned silence, Massey and Wolf escalated their pseudo-battle, which culminated in Massey chasing Wolf out of the room while brandishing an antique sword.

Wolf also was a collector of antique recording devices, including Edison phonographs and hundreds of wax cylinders. He continually purchased additions on eBay or while perusing dusty curio shops during his many trips abroad. Many of his finds were incorporated into demonstrations about the history of recording that he and Siegel would give, to the delight of audiences at UCSD. And when his granddaughter’s iPod quit working, Wolf disassembled it and added it to the show.

In 2001, he won the IEEE Information Theory Society’s top honor, the Claude E. Shannon Award, named for the father of information theory. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Sciences, supreme societies in both fields. UCSD recently announced the endowment of a chair in his name at the School of Engineering.