UH Professor Wesley Peterson Named Japan Prize Laureate

December 15, 1998

University of Hawaii Information and Computer Sciences Professor W. Wesley Peterson will receive the 1999 Japan Prize for Information Technologies, Japan's Consul General Gotaro Ogawa announced Tuesday, Dec. 15, at a news conference held in UH Manoa's POST Building. A simultaneous announcement was made in Tokyo.

Peterson will be honored for his groundbreaking work in digital communications error control. The publication of his 1961 book, Error-Correcting Codes, is regarded as the birth of algebraic coding theory, still the fundamental theory for error-correcting codes. Error-detecting and -correcting codes are indispensable for reliable digital communication, digital broadcasting and data storage systems. A second, revised edition of Peterson's book, co-authored with E.J. Weldon Jr., was published in 1972 and is still widely used. The work's longevity--in a field that changes so rapidly that books quickly become obsolete--testifies to its status as a "bible."

The Japan Prize was established in 1982 to "express Japan's gratitude to international society." In October 1983, the Japanese Cabinet endorsed the prize, declaring that "the Japan Prize will serve to deepen the understanding of the role played by science and technology in furthering world peace and prosperity, thereby making a vital contribution to the positive development of mankind." The first prizes were awarded in 1985. Each year a selection committee organized by the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan chooses two prize categories and solicits nominations from leading scholars and researchers around the world. Laureates' names are announced in December and the award is presented during Japan Prize Week in April. During Japan Prize Week, the laureates attend commemorative lectures and academic discussion meetings, and pay courtesy calls on the Prime Minister of Japan.

Getting to Tokyo for Japan Prize Week will be no problem for Peterson. He will be on sabbatical next semester, working at Hiroshima City University. The Presentation Ceremony in Tokyo is attended by the Emperor and Empress as well as Japan's Prime Minister, Speaker of the House of Representatives, President of the House of Councillors, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, foreign ambassadors to Japan and more than 1,000 other guests. Each Japan Prize Laureate receives a certificate of merit and a commemorative medal as well as a cash award of ¥50 million (about $400,000). The second award for 1999, in the category of Molecular Recognition and Dynamics in Bioscience, will be shared by Jack L. Strominger and Donald C. Wiley of Harvard University.

A Michigan native, Peterson joined the UH faculty in 1964, drawn to the islands' gentle climate and Asian-influenced culture. With his keen awareness of the fortunate ironies in his life, Peterson almost makes it sound like luck that he made the discoveries and developed the coding theories that earned him the Japan Prize. He got interested in electronics, he explains, while he was in junior high. "We had one radio. I wanted to listen to 'The Lone Ranger,' but it was on at the same time as the news broadcast my parents wanted to hear. So I built my own radio." In the ninth grade, an introduction to algebra 'impressed' him, and he has been pursuing those two 'hobbies' ever since. That nearly unique combination of interests yielded his breakthrough work in error control at a time when electronics and algebra were an either/or proposition for most information scientists.

Peterson says he had never seen a computer until after he got his PhD (in electrical engineering, from the University of Michigan)--and he has still never taken a course in computer science--but the machines seemed interesting, so he went to work for IBM in 1954. He was a visiting associate professor of electrical engineering at MIT, on leave from the University of Florida, when he began writing Error-Correcting Codes at the suggestion of a colleague. The book standardized terminology and notations for representing error-correcting codes.

It established a framework of algebraic coding on the basis of modern algebra. Most important, at a time when few engineers were interested in algebra, Peterson's book demonstrated that modern algebra offered precisely the right theory for the practical development of error-correcting codes. The original research that went into the book included a wide array of coding and decoding developments that are today involved in all computer disk drives as well as most digital communication systems. In addition, Peterson invented practical logic circuits for error detection and correction that became vital to industrial computer and communications applications.

In just his third year on the UH faculty, Peterson received a Regents Medal for Excellence in Research. In 1981 the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Information Theory Society honored him with its Shannon Award (named for Claude Shannon, author of another seminal volume, 1954's The Mathematical Theory of Communication), and in 1984 IEEE awarded him its Centennial Medal. Peterson jokes about constructing a 'shrine' of his awards, but only the Shannon Award is on display in his ICS office, and it is half-hidden behind a favorite panel of Japanese calligraphy. Otherwise, Peterson continues to teach, do research and consult with students like any other hard-working faculty member. Colleagues say his students don't always realize their professor is a superstar. It will be harder to keep that secret now.

University of Hawaii at Manoa

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