James L. Massey (1934-2013)

Massey Photo 040113

James Massey, pioneering coding and information theorist, passed away today June 16, 2013 after a battle with cancer.

An extended interview can be found in


20 thoughts on “James L. Massey (1934-2013)

  1. I took my PhD at Notre Dame and Jim’s course in information theory was the best I took there—indeed, I still reference my notes from that course some 51 years later. This suggests that Jim’s scholarship was fundamental, lucid, and concise; attributes surely rare today. A rare man I was fortunate to know.

  2. Jim was an extraordinary person, I don’t know of anyone who was not impressed after meeting him. There was this positive and focused interest in who you are. Jim influenced many people by his personality. And, as time went on, one learned that he influenced many people behind the scenes, supporting their careers, saying good things. Andrew Viterbi wrote in a blog about Jim recently that Jim was everyone’s mentor in the information theory community. This community was important to him, and through his care and support it became a better place with better people.

    Quality was something that was important to Jim. Quality of thinking, quality of writing, quality of communicating, quality in treating people with respect. This was not a strict instruction, but rather a gentle one that constantly teaches and encourages. He left much room for growth. I am already starting to speak of my own personal experiences. I was strongly influenced by Jim, he was my role model in many ways. I will remember him with deep and sincere gratitude and respect.

    Cafe Bjerget, Copenhagen, June 22

  3. I was on leave at ENST in Paris in the fall semester of 1986 when I was studying for my PhD degree at Cornell with Toby Berger. During my stay Gerard Cohen and other ENST folks organized a workshop on coding theory and invited Jim as the keynote speaker. I was also invited to give a short talk. Other than Jim’s talk and my own talk I was not able to understand any other talk because I did not know French. After the workshop I asked Toby why this Swiss professor spoke perfect English.

    That was the occasion I met Jim. Jim was very kind to be my reference for a few times early in my career, including for my application to CUHK where I stay until now. After he had promised to be my reference, he attended very single talk of mine at ISIT (every 18 months then) for a few years. This shows how serious a person Jim is.

    I got married in 1997. At that time Jim had a summer home in a small town in Switzerland, and he kindly offered us a stay there as his wedding gift to us. I cannot remember the name of the town anymore. I think he sold the house a few years afterwards.

    I had been in touch with Jim throughout the years. I visited him at ETH when I was on my way to ITW in Poznan, Poland. That time I stayed with the Costellos in their apartment in Zurich. In 2003, my wife and I visited Jim at Copenhagen. We stayed with him and Lis in their apartment, and Jim showed us his boat. During that week, there was an unsuccessful attempt to steal the Little Mermaid. The thieves blew off the base of the statue and the statue fell into the river. I remember that tons of tourists still went there to “see” the statue as if it were still there.

    I was expecting to see Jim at ISIT in Istanbul. I learned about Jim’s illness from Gerhard Kramer during my visit to him in May, but only two days before my departure for Iceland. Otherwise I certainly would have paid Jim a visit. Nevertheless, Prakash Narayan (also visiting Gerhard) managed to talk to Jim on the phone. He was quite conscious then and could still remember the names of my wife and my daughter.

    Jim is a giant in many ways in life. He is the only person I know in the community who would call Tom Cover “Thomas”. In addition to his remarkable scholarship, his great generosity is a legacy to the information theory community. I would consider it an achievement if I can pass half of his generosity on me and my family to the junior people in the community.

  4. I first met Jim when I started working for the Marconi Society in 2006. Jim was then a member of the Selection Advisory Committee, and he later became its chairman. He was one of the kindest and most gracious men I’ve ever met, with a twinkle in his eye that would lift the heaviest heart. He had a dangerously effective sense of humor–it seemed to operate on a 4-second delay. You would be walking away when the full force of the punchline would hit you.

    In an organization of so many extraordinary people, Jim still stood out. He was capable of forming instantaneous friendships-for-life. He made everything he participated in better. He will be missed by everyone.

  5. James Massey, In Memoriam, ISIT 2013, Istanbul, July 8, 2013

    I feel rather strange to be standing here and talking in memoriam of James Massey, a towering figure in the field of Information Theory for decades. It is as if I am talking about a senior colleague and a friend who is still with us.

    I first met Jim through my PhD advisor, Prof. Israel Bar-David, who was a close friend of Jim and Lis. I remember meeting Jim as a PhD student at the Technion. I was amazed then, and still am, by his unmatched abilities to convey ideas and mature perspectives in a simple, clear, and understandable way. This combined with his kindness, and a direct and friendly approach, treating a student as an equal, is something which is impossible to forget.

    I benefited much in my pre-academic occupation from his clear understanding of the practical aspects of communications of the time, suggesting to look at the cut-off rate as a simple and practical figure of merit (irrespective of the fact that the actual designed code may not reach that rate).

    I remember fondly his kindness, advice and encouragement, when he saw me being tense at ISIT 2011 in St. Petersburg, before delivering my Shannon lecture.

    I was always looking forward to seeing and talking to him. I knew that, without exception, every time I would take home a new insight, technical or otherwise, that was clearly explained in elementary terms.

    We are gathered here fondly remembering Jim, but for me it is hard even to imagine that we will never see him or hear his voice again.

  6. I was shocked and saddened when I received Gerhard Kramer’s email informing me about Jim’s passing away two weeks ago. Several friends and colleagues have already described so well in preceding messages on this blog the fine characteristics of Jim’s personality, and how outstanding a scholar, mentor and teacher he was. I can only confirm those appraisals of him.

    I would like to confine myself in this tribute to Jim to commenting on the various significant ways in which he touched upon my life and why I feel so indebted to him to have had him as a colleague and friend. At the same time, I will formulate several personal recollections of instances and pleasant moments we shared together during our careers. Altogether, I will try to give a picture of Jim as I have observed him, and emphasize qualities which have struck me when interacting with him over the years.

    I first met Jim at the 1974 ISIT in Notre Dame where he was co-chairman. At that time, Jim was already a celebrity within the information theory community. We last met at the ISIT in Saint Petersburg in 2011, when I had the pleasure to sit with Jim and Lis at the luncheon table during the award ceremony.

    At the beginning of my career Jim was quite supportive to me in my research endeavors. As Editor of the IT Transactions he invited me in 1976 to publish my survey article on multi-user information theory as an invited paper in the January 1977 issue of the journal. This publication gave me more visibility within the IT community than I had enjoyed before, and because of the special status that Jim had given to the paper it was broadly read. When I moved in 1975 from the US to Belgium I had correspondence with Jim about my choice to go Leuven. Jim had already visited KULeuven long before I got there.

    When Jim took the position at ETH Zurich in 1980, all information theorists in Europe, including myself, were very excited about his coming and welcomed him, since he was such an eminent figure in the field who would exercise much influence on the research in information theory and the development of it in Europe. And indeed he did. Apart from the many Ph. D. students he guided at ETH on various subjects, his influence radiated in several directions in Europe.

    First of all, Jim became a binding factor between the electrical engineers and mathematicians active in information theory in Europe. For the organization of the three meetings on information theory held in Oberwolfach in the period 1979-1996, Jim formed, together with Rudi Ahlswede and Jack van Lint, the triumvirate which selected the participants for these high level research meetings. Jim gave excellent presentations on various topics at those meetings and often engaged in stimulating research discussions with others.

    Jim was an invited speaker and prominently present at several NATO ASI’s held in Europe, such as the ones in Bonas (1983) and Il Ciocco (1986). There were humourous exchanges between Jim and Jack Wolf in their respective lectures given at these ASI’s, as they would comment on each other in the sequence of presentations.

    Anne-marie and I established a warm friendship with Jim and Lis during these NATO ASI meetings.
    We felt privileged to be invited to the 60th birthday celebration of Jim held in Ascona in February 1994. This was a superb gathering with many colleagues and friends of Jim. Several anecdotes can be recounted from the gala-dinner given then in Jim’s honor.

    During these active years in the eighties and nineties of the last century in Europe, Jim launched a great variety of topics. It was the period of cryptography and the collision channel. Later on he initiated the research on directed information and guessing. Those years were the heydays of information theory in Europe and Jim was at the very center of it.

    After his retirement and move to Copenhagen in 1999 Jim remained active. I felt particularly honored that Jim was willing to come to Leuven in February 2003 for the celebration of my own retirement and be the opening speaker of the lecture session then. At that occasion, Jim gave a talk entitled: “The curse of linearity”, in which he assigned a yet unsolved research problem to me.

    Jim was twice keynote speaker at the Benelux Symposium on Information Theory, once in 1983 in Leuven, and once in 2004 in Kerkrade in Holland. At the Benelux Symposium in Kerkrade he gave an entertaining and instructive lecture entitled: “The footsteps of Shannon”. In his talk Jim said: “to me, what Shannon contributed to our field is not more important than how he did it”, and focused his presentation on the “how”. He made several suggestions on how one might follow in those footsteps and cited instances of appearance of such traits in Shannon’s work.

    During the past decade Jim became an “eminence grise”. Jim and I interacted at the meetings organized at the ZiF in Bielefeld in the period 2001-2004 and shared several nice dinners at those occasions. We always had an interesting conversation on a broad range of topics. We also met at the ISIT’s in Sorrento (2000), Lausanne (2002), Yokohama (2003), Chicago (2004), Nice (2007) and St. Petersburg (2011). Anne-marie and I had often the pleasure to join Jim and Lis for dinner or the banquet at those symposia.

    At the NATO ASI on Coding and Analysis of Multiple Access Channels in 2006 in Budapest, Jim gave two superb lectures on “Scheduled and Random Access-Multiple Accessing”. I much enjoyed sharing lunch with him on many days during this two-week ASI. He was proud then to show the latest pictures of Oliver, the beloved dog of Jim and Lis, on his laptop.

    Jim and I had a nice encounter at the 60-th birthday celebration of Laci Györfi in Budapest in October 2007. When the meeting was over, Laci hosted a lunch for the participants in the restaurant of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Afterwards, Jim and I walked over the Chain Bridge in Budapest back to the Gellert hotel. On the bridge he explained to me the special mechanical technique by which this bridge is constructed. When we passed a beggar on the bridge, Jim took some coins out of his pocket, gently bent forward and handed them to the man, without interrupting our walk or conversation.

    There are many fun stories around Jim. He was a brilliant speaker and well-versed in English literature.
    Most people in the IT Society know about the 68-line poem “Casey at the Bat” by E. L. Thayer, which he could recite flawlessly by heart at banquets and similar occasions. Less known perhaps is that Jim wrote in the same vein a new poem called “Rudi at the Board” in honor of Rudolf Ahlswede at the occasion of Rudi’s 60 th birthday celebration in Bielefeld in October 1998. This beautiful poem was published in the IT Society Newsletter of December 1998. In it, Jim poked fun at Rudi. The last two sentences of that poem read: “But joy in Oberwolfach there was none to find that day, for Rudi’s inequality was pointing the wrong way”. Jim told me in St.-Petersburg that Rudi had not appreciated the poem and got mad at him, because Rudi’s German colleagues had laughed at Rudi about it.

    Jim was quite strict on timing at meetings. As Chairman of the Program Committee of the ISIT in Trondheim (1994) he organized a committee meeting in Zurich, which he scheduled to start at 8 am. You had better been in time for that meeting, so as not to be reprimanded by Jim. At the NATO ASI in Il Ciocco (1986) he proposed that every speaker who would go over his allotted time would have to eat an additional amount of pasta (which was already abundant at all meals).

    Jim was a man of elegance. It was delightful to see Lis at his side at meetings. Since Jim went to so many conferences, Lis could not always join him on his travels. Jim often toasted to Lis during the dinners at those meetings.

    Jim and I had quite a few research discussions, especially on the multiple access channel, but we regrettably never worked on a problem together. Many of the ideas he formulated are still in my mind, and hopefully some day I will find the time to work out his suggestions.

    As to his presentations, it has particularly struck me that I have never heard Jim speak twice about the same topic. Each of his talks which I attended was focused on a different topic and geared to the special event he was invited to speak at. Jim seemed to have at his disposal a huge collection of topics and problems, out of which he would with great ease at each occasion pull out a new one. To me, this shows the great, almost kaleidoscopic, versatility of Jim, for which I admire him much.

    Jim was an outstanding scientist, a very humane and cultured person, a gentleman, and a true friend. Anne-marie and I will surely miss him and express our sincere condolences to Lis and family.

  7. Jim was my PhD. external examiner at University of Manchester in 1992, when we became very good friends. He was special not only for his vast knowledge but mainly for his care with people and humanity. Our last meeting was in a symposium in Ambleside, UK, in 2009, when we had a nice talk about dogs, that he loved.

    Bye friend! I’m gonna miss you …

  8. What a great loss! Jim was a fantastic role model for many that had the privilege to interact with him.
    I remember his plenary seminar in a School of Algebra in 2001. With his unassuming style, in spite of being a true giant of mathematics and engineering, he thanked for the invitation to participate saying he felt like Daniel in a den of lions.
    He will be deeply missed for all his outstanding contributions, his great sense of humor and warm friendship.

  9. With my most heartfelt thoughts to the memory of Jim, a great colleague and friend. He was one of those brilliant and warm scientists who contributed to the high reputation and conviviality of the information theory community. Sincere condolences to his family.

  10. Jim was a brilliant person, scientist and a great teacher . Jim was one of the most admirable human beings I ever met in my life. I have had a privilege to know him many years and work with him over SAFER+ and SAFER++ algorithms. I enjoyed any interaction with him especially during his visits to Armenia when sharing Armenian Cognac with him which he liked very much. He will be missed greatly and remembered long time by everyone who knew him..
    My condolences goes to his wife Lis who was always with Jim and to all Massey’s Family.

  11. The passing of our friend, colleague Jim Massey has been a profound loss and deeply sad news to myself and to a vast community of scientists, friends, and colleagues around the world. Jim was a gracious, pleasant, kind friend, and a colleague of preeminent stature. I had the privilege of meeting Jim for the first time back in 1978 at UCLA. He was also a consultant to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at that time. Jim’s contributions are beyond a simple recognition. He clearly has left a permanent imprint on science, and on people who knew him. It is regrettable that he endured the ravages of a difficult illness in his latter days.

    On June 1st 2013 we had conversation with Jim Omura regarding Jim Massey and circumstances of his health and subsequently discovered that he was going to have an operation. Later we learned that Jim did not have an operation because he was too ill and weak to go through with it. We sent emails to his son John wishing his father to recover soon. John replied “Please let my Dad’s friends know that the best way to send their best wishes to my Dad is to write a “snail mail” post office letter. He likes reading letters from old friends remembering old fun times together.” On June 8th, Jim Omura wrote: “I just talked with Lis (Jim Massey’s wife), Jim was barely able to speak. I got a chance to say goodbye to Jim.” On June 16th, Jim Omura forwarded John Massey’s email: “ FYI. My dad died today (Sunday) at 2:42 pm Denmark time. He passed peacefully in his sleep with Lis and Granddaughter Regitse at his side at home.”

    We all will miss him and wish Jim’s family comfort in these difficult times. May his soul rest in peace and serenity.

  12. I was privileged and extremely lucky to have Jim Massey as my dissertation advisor at Notre Dame many years ago. I remember fondly the review sessions that I had with Jim. I am greatly indebted to him for his patience in research direction. I owe him above all for his encouragement that always brought some daylight into a research project that sometimes seemed dark and barren.

    Jim was a great teacher. His lectures were not only lucid and clear, they were also well prepared and interesting. His dedication to Information Theory was evident in the in the quality of his presentations. I still have most of his class notes. They are truly works of art that are more informative than many first class texts in the field.

    I have been retired for several years now and though I did not choose work in academics or in he field of Information Theory after leaving Notre Dame, I did try to follow Jim’ s great body of work in this field. The magnitude and importance of his work is astonishing. He will be sorely missed by his family, former students, colleagues and friends, including by me.

  13. Pingback: James Massey (1934-2014) | On the learning curve...

  14. Jim’s passing has come quite unexpected to me. I somehow never imagined that there would be a time without him. Reflecting back, I realize how profound his influence on my own academic endeavors is. He was curious, always ready to learn new things, and holding up the highest standards technically as well as ethically. Yet, at the same time, he was friendly, humble, and always ready to help, out of generosity and kindness. I find that in my daily work with students I strive to achieve at least a small fraction of these traits that Jim instilled in me when I was his Ph.D. student. In that sense, and I’m sure this is true for many of the people whose lives he touched, Jim will always be with us. My concolences go to Lis and the rest of Jim’s family.

  15. Jim was a brilliant contributor to information theory, but so much more. He was one of the finest human beings I have had the privilege to know, with a deep concern for others and for humanity in general. He will be sorely missed.

  16. Jim Massey was everyone’s mentor in the Information Theory community. I spent many pleasant hours with Jim and observed the same beautiful traits of his personality as have been noted by numerous others. Early on, more than any other colleague, Jim encouraged me to publish all details of my 1967 IT paper which gained traction over time and established my reputation. (I believe he was also a reviewer.) For this alone, he became my most valued mentor. I also observed him as a teacher and mentor to generations of his graduate students and in his regard for their development he had no peers.

  17. The great Jim Massey with his “perpetual” smile and warm personality was my “intellectual father” who was my guiding light during the short time he was at UCLA. It was heart breaking to find out about his passing on “father’s day”! Jim’s legacy, teachings and echo of his voice will remain with me for the rest of my life. My condolences goes to his wife Lis, who he dearly loved and was always on his side as long as I knew him, and the rest of Massey’s family.

    • Ramin,

      Thank you for your kind comment. I am Jim’s granddaughter, and I am studying engineering at Purdue. Some of my fondest memories are of my grandfather helping me with calculus in high school. I can relate with Jim being your “intellectual father”–I felt the same way!

  18. I worked with Jim Massey on the Marconi Selection committee and he led it to perfection, including thorough evaluation of a broad range of criteria. He insisted on good research and careful qualification of all candidates and a fair and broad assessment of each. He brought these same qualities to his research for which he was, himself, recognized with the Marconi Fellowship and Prize in 1999. He will be missed greatly and remembered long by colleagues, friends and students.

  19. Jim was a great mentor, a great teacher, and a great scholar. I was privileged to have him as my dissertation advisor. He had high standards for research and pushed his students hard not just to get results, but to really understand the results, and to always boil things down to the simplest terms. He was a stickler for being precise, and for clarity. He did not encourage the publication of small results. Rather, he urged his students to write papers that elucidated a topic, with emphasis on insight and intuition.

    Perhaps Jim’s greatest legacy was his love for Information Theory and his eagerness to “spread the Gospel”. He was always encouraging young scholars along the path to serious research in Information Theory. He was famous for trying to “break the IT Society bank” by supporting as many students and international participants as possible to attend ISITs. He led the IT Society in promoting outreach to IT researchers in other countries. He had a true international vision.

    Jim will perhaps best be remembered as a great teacher, a captivating lecturer, and a gifted banquet speaker. His classroom lectures were a model of clarity, and his various course notes far surpassed most textbooks in the area. His ISIT talks routinely filled the room, SRO, to the point where organizing committees would always schedule his presentations for the largest room. People wanted to attend his talks because they knew they would learn something and often get a fresh perspective on a classic problem. His banquet talks were legendary. He sometimes would spend weeks or months in preparation, and the results were always entertaining.

    Besides being a great mentor and role model, Jim was a good friend. As we “matured” in life, nothing was more enjoyable than sharing a few glasses of whiskey with Jim and other former students at various IT Society functions. Life won’t be the same without him.

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