Celebratio Mathematica

Elwyn Berlekamp

The Berlekamp Postdoctoral Fellowship

by David Eisenbud

[Ed­it­or’s note: We re­pro­duce the fol­low­ing an­nounce­ment from the Spring 2014 is­sue of the MSRI news­let­ter, Emis­sary, for the light it throws on El­wyn Ber­lekamp’s role as Chair of the Board of Trust­ees dur­ing a peri­od of trans­ition. This cul­min­ated in the Board’s hir­ing of Dav­id Eis­en­bud in 1997 as the new In­sti­tute’s new Dir­ect­or.]

I’m quite de­lighted to an­nounce the com­ple­tion of a fun­drais­ing cam­paign to en­dow a Postdoc­tor­al Fel­low­ship in hon­or of El­wyn Ber­lekamp! In­deed, so many of El­wyn’s friends and ad­mirers were eager to con­trib­ute to the cam­paign that we were able to go well over our goal and raise \$1,000,000 for the en­dow­ment, for a little fund for Fel­lows to use in ad­di­tion to the ba­sic sti­pend.

In com­puter sci­ence and in­form­a­tion the­ory, El­wyn is fam­ous for his al­gorithms in cod­ing the­ory and for the fac­tor­iz­a­tion of poly­no­mi­als. In math­em­at­ics, his best-known work is on com­bin­at­or­i­al game the­ory, partly dis­sem­in­ated in his four-volume work Win­ning Ways with John H. Con­way and Richard Guy.

One of his im­port­ant ac­com­plish­ments in game the­ory was his ana­lys­is of po­s­i­tions in the en­dgame of Go. He demon­strated the ef­fect­ive­ness of his the­ory by set­ting up a plaus­ible en­dgame po­s­i­tion from which he beat one of the Ja­pan­ese cham­pi­ons of the game, after which he set up the same po­s­i­tion, re­versed the board, and beat the mas­ter a second time. And again and again, for a total of sev­en con­sec­ut­ive wins. He also in­ven­ted a vari­ation of the game called “Coupon Go,” which is closer to the el­eg­ant math­em­at­ic­al the­or­ies. This has at­trac­ted the at­ten­tion of both math­em­aticians and sev­er­al world-class pro­fes­sion­al Go play­ers.

El­wyn’s love of game strategy ex­tends to every­day life as well: I have al­ways been im­pressed by the fact that once, in a meet­ing of Berke­ley’s com­puter sci­ence de­part­ment when someone pro­posed a mo­tion of no-con­fid­ence against the chair, El­wyn seconded it, and amid gen­er­al laughter the mo­tion was dropped. The chair was…El­wyn!

El­wyn’s fath­er was a min­is­ter, and one sees the fath­er’s in­flu­ence on the son in a strong and con­sist­ent ideal of ser­vice to the great­er good, abund­antly clear in El­wyn’s com­mit­ment to MSRI among oth­er in­sti­tu­tions. In fact, his en­gage­ment with MSRI began even be­fore there was an MSRI. El­wyn re­counts go­ing along for a meet­ing with the chan­cel­lor to con­vince him of an as­pect of MSRI’s struc­ture and find­ing an easy task: the chan­cel­lor began the meet­ing by an­noun­cing that he ap­proved the ar­range­ment. (Years later, El­wyn taught me an im­port­ant les­son of ne­go­ti­ation: once you have agree­ment, change the sub­ject! I don’t know how that con­ver­sa­tion in the chan­cel­lor’s of­fice con­tin­ued.)

Meeting Elwyn

El­wyn was Chair of MSRI’s Board in 1996 when I ap­plied to be­come dir­ect­or. He took his role ex­traordin­ar­ily ser­i­ously: to make sure that I was OK, he made a vis­it to my home near Bo­ston (I was teach­ing at Bran­de­is at the time). I in­vited my col­league and ment­or Dav­id Buchs­baum to join us for brunch, to bol­ster my team. I re­mem­ber that after El­wyn left, Buchs­baum com­men­ted that he would worry about col­lab­or­at­ing with someone quite so in­tense as Ber­lekamp!

After El­wyn hired me, the in­tens­ity turned out to be very pos­it­ive. El­wyn ment­ored and coached me in what was, for me, an ex­traordin­ary ex­per­i­ence of growth and learn­ing. He in­tro­duced me to a wide and use­ful ac­quaint­ance and lib­er­ally al­lowed me to use his con­nec­tions. Dur­ing long car rides, I learned a great deal about the his­tory of MSRI, in which he’d been very en­gaged, and the many per­son­al­it­ies that had played a role. I count my­self most for­tu­nate to have had as ment­ors Saun­ders MacLane, my Ph.D. ad­visor; Dav­id Buchs­baum, my postdoc­tor­al ment­or, and long­time friend and col­lab­or­at­or; and fi­nally El­wyn, who taught me so much and helped me in the trans­ition to my role at MSRI, and whose friend­ship and en­cour­age­ment has meant a great deal to me.

For all these reas­ons, it is a real pleas­ure to have es­tab­lished the Ber­lekamp Postdoc­tor­al Fel­low­ship at MSRI in ad­di­tion to the Ber­lekamp Garden, cre­ated in 2006. May the Fel­lows go on to do great work in math­em­at­ics and for the math­em­at­ics pro­fes­sion!