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Elwyn Berlekamp has left us

In memory of Elwyn Berlekamp, who passed away on 9th April, Colin Wright has shared with us this post from his blog.

I remember meeting Elwyn Berlekamp.

It was at a Gathering For Gardner (G4G) meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, (as they have all been – so far). He was in a group of people that was chatting, and it was some time before I realised just who he was. I was already aware of a few of the amazing things he had done, and so was quietly pleased to be in a conversation group that included him. We didn’t chat with each other – it was still some years before that would happen. But we were co-located, and that was a bit of a buzz for me.

It turns out that this wasn’t unusual. I can’t say that I knew him well, but my personal experience was that he was quiet, but generous. You can read about some of the extraordinary work that he did by looking him up on the web, and I won’t go into that here. Suffice to say that my signed copy of “Winning Ways” is one of my treasured possessions.

So you can read online about the Berlekamp-Welch algorithm and the Berlekamp-Massey algorithms which are used to implement Reed-Solomon error correcting codes, which are used everywhere from DVDs to getting images back from space. I won’t repeat that here. Instead, I’ll tell you a story.

When I attend G4G I always try to arrive on Tuesday afternoon, even though the event doesn’t start till the Wednesday evening. Part of this is to allow for hiccoughs and delays in travel, part is to let me get settled after the journey, but mostly it’s because many of the people I know and who I only get to see every two years also arrive early, so we get some time to hang out.

One particular G4G I saw someone hanging back, watching us all talk and play with puzzles, so I wandered over and asked if they were there for G4G. “Yes!” came the reply, so I brought them over, pointed out some of the people in the group, and said that when they were ready to join in, they would be welcome.

“Is Berlekamp here?” I was asked. “I really want to have a game of Go with him.”

“I don’t think he’s here yet, although he’s likely to turn up tomorrow. And just go and talk to him. When the time is right, ask for a game.”

I don’t know if he did that, but a day or two later when I saw Elwyn I said that there was a young lad who wanted a game with him. The reply was “That can probably happen.”

It was only later that I found out what did happen.

One of the sub-events at most G4Gs was an afternoon at Tom Rodgers’ house. Those delegates participating in that sub-event were usually taken after lunch by bus where there was the opportunity of wandering around the amazing gardens, taking part in a quiz, or Mathematical Sculpture Building, and then a meal, all while spending time with some of the other delegates. My young friend was supposed to be there, although I didn’t see him, and neither did I see Elwyn.

But they were there.

Elwyn hadn’t taken the bus. Instead he’d taken a taxi downtown and bought a Go set. He’d then continued on to Tom’s house, and had a game with my young friend. At the end of the game Elwyn turned the board over, signed it, and gave the set to him.

That was Elwyn Berlekamp.

I’ve been in touch with him, and can now say that the other person in the story is Art Terlap. He says it’s a story he’s told many times, and it had a lasting impact on him. And that seems to be a theme in the stories I’m hearing about meeting Elwyn – he seems to have had a lasting effect on a lot of people.

Certainly did on me.

There is no way that this can be complete, but here is some extra information about various things mentioned above:

Elwyn Berlekamp’s homepage

Gathering For Gardner

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