When W. Wesley Peterson’s “Error-Correcting Codes” was published in 1961, he didn’t expect it to have much of an impact.
“It was so technical that I thought a thousand copies would probably be sold to libraries and a few individuals,” said the 75-year-old University of Hawaii professor.
However, the theories he presented helped spark a digital revolution and has been used to design equipment we use every day — CDs, cellular phones and the Internet.
Peterson’s book has become something of a bible among experts in his field and, as he notes bemusedly, is still selling.
Peterson is one of three scientists who was awarded this year’s Japan Prize and is currently in Tokyo with his wife, Hiromi.
Peterson was given a prize in the category of information technology for “his contribution to reliable digital technology by establishing coding theory.”
Speaking in fluent Japanese intermittently to underline his points, he explained how error-correcting codes are indispensable to digital technology.
When digital data are transferred from one place to another, they pick up “noise” en route. “When you talked on the old telephone, you heard click sounds, that’s noise. It causes errors in the digital information,” he said.
“The idea (of error-correcting code) is that there is information and there is additional information. When an error occurs, this (additional) information can be used to locate and correct the errors in the information,” the scientist said.
Error-eliminators are used whenever digital data are transferred — in communications as well as data storage, for errors also occur when digital data are retrieved from storage devices — such as on the Internet, telephone, computer disk systems, music CDs, and MDs.
But Peterson is humble about his achievements and throughout the interview emphasized the contributions fellow scientists made to establishing error-correcting codes.
He said the idea was first aired by Claude Shannon in his 1949 book, “The Mathematical Theory of Communication.”
“It was really a wonderful book because Shannon understood the nature of information better than anybody before,” he said. “He proved error-correcting codes were possible in theory, but he just did not know how to do it.”
Subsequently many scientists worked on actualizing the theory. “It is not a single brilliant idea (of mine),” he said. “Shannon first said it is possible. After that there have been many people and many ideas.”
Commending Peterson’s contributions, a newspaper once wrote that error-correcting codes would not even exist without him. “It’s not true,” he said. He said that throughout his life, simple interest in the subjects he has studied has been his driving force. “If you want to succeed in something, you have to be really dedicated to it, but it is impossible if you do not like it,” Peterson said.
In his childhood, his love for radio eventually led him to operate a radio station with his friend.
In high school, he was enthralled by algebra and its power to solve problems. “It became a sort of hobby. I even studied at home after school and it was not even an assignment,” he said. “I just studied because I liked it.”
After he entered the University of Michigan in 1948, he continued to study algebra seriously while taking engineering courses.
He recalled a professor who said on the first day of class, “Algebra is a very beautiful theory but has no practical application.”
Algebra was ignored by engineers in those days. But about a decade after he graduated with degrees in math and engineering, Peterson used algebra as the base for his theories on error-correcting codes. “Now algebra is considered a very important subject in many fields,” he said. “I was better positioned than others thanks to my unique position as one with strong backgrounds in both math and engineering,” he said.
“Do not get the exact same education as everybody else has,” he advised, saying students should do whatever interests them without limiting themselves to one narrow field of study.
From now on, Peterson plans to practice his life motto, “just do what I like” as he has done so far. “Right now, teaching is my first priority, I am taking the job very seriously.”
He has been in Hiroshima with his wife since January as a visiting lecturer at Hiroshima City University.
Since 1985, the Science and Technology Foundation of Japan has given the Japan Prize each year to scientists who have made “original and outstanding achievements in science and technology.”
Past winners include Leo Esaki, 1973 Nobel Prize Laureate and former Tsukuba University president.