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In Memoriam: Elwyn Berlekamp

Dr. Elwyn BerlekampThe directorate and staff of MSRI are deeply saddened to announce the passing of Dr. Elwyn Berlekamp, UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, on April 9, 2019. Dr. Berlekamp was one of MSRI's most steadfast supporters since the Institute's founding in 1982.

MSRI's Berlekamp Postdoctoral Fellowship was established in 2014 by a group of his friends—colleagues and former students whose lives were touched by Dr. Berlekamp. MSRI is also home to the Elwyn and Jennifer Berlekamp Garden, created in 2006, which features an outdoor area suitable for mathematical collaboration as well as contemplation.

PBS affiliate Kentucky Educational Television aired the following retrospective of Dr. Berlekamp's life and research in 2016.



A Legacy at MSRI

MSRI Director David Eisenbud wrote the following history of Dr. Berlekamp's connections to MSRI (adapted from the Spring 2014 Emissary newsletter):

Elwyn’s careers, in computer science and engineering, in mathematics and in business, are of great distinction. As all his friends knew, Elwyn loved mathematical puzzles and problems; as an undergraduate,he was one of the five top scorers in the notoriously difficult Putnam competition. After completing a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from MIT in 1964, Elwyn held positions in Berkeley, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, MIT, and Bell Labs. Although he became professor emeritus in the math department at Berkeley, he was at one time the chair of computer science there.

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 attracted the attention of both mathematicians and several world-class professional Go players. Elwyn’s love of game strategy extended 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 recounted 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.)

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.


Additional Information about the Life and Legacy of Elwyn Berlekamp


Photo Gallery

  • Tadashi Tokieda, Elwyn Berlekamp, and David Eisenbud at MSRI

    Tadashi Tokieda, Elwyn Berlekamp, and David Eisenbud at MSRI

    With Tadashi Tokieda and David Eisenbud

  • Elwyn Berlekamp

    Elwyn Berlekamp

    Elwyn Berlekamp

  • Berlekamp Postdoctoral Fellow Georg Menz (2015) and Elwyn Berlekamp

    Berlekamp Postdoctoral Fellow Georg Menz (2015) and Elwyn Berlekamp

    With Berlekamp Postdoc Georg Menz (2015)

  • Elwyn Berlekamp and Georg Menz

    Elwyn Berlekamp and Georg Menz

    With Georg Menz

  • Elwyn Berlekamp

    Elwyn Berlekamp

  • Berlekamp Garden at MSRI

    Berlekamp Garden at MSRI

    Berlekamp Garden at MSRI

  • Sandor Straus, Elwyn Berlekamp, and David Eisenbud

    Sandor Straus, Elwyn Berlekamp, and David Eisenbud

    With Sandor Straus and David Eisenbud

  • Elwyn Berlekamp and Brady Haran of Numberphile

    Elwyn Berlekamp and Brady Haran of Numberphile

    Filming with Brady Haran of Numberphile

  • Aaron Siegel, Elwyn Berlekamp, Thane Plambeck, David Eisenbud, and Richard Guy

    Aaron Siegel, Elwyn Berlekamp, Thane Plambeck, David Eisenbud, and Richard Guy

    With Aaron Siegel, Thane Plambeck, David Eisenbud, and Richard Guy

  • Elwyn Berlekamp with Sir Roger Penrose

    Elwyn Berlekamp with Sir Roger Penrose

    With Sir Roger Penrose

  • Elwyn Berlekamp and Richard Nowakowski

    Elwyn Berlekamp and Richard Nowakowski

    With Richard Nowakowski