A Bit of Ancestry

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Just a couple hours ago, as I was creating slides for my PQI seminar on Quantum Integer Programming (at 330pm today), I received this email:

The Information Theory Society proudly invites you to the online premiere of The Bit Player, the first feature documentary about the father of the information age, Claude Shannon — watch the trailer below.

Why am I even receiving emails from Information Theory Society?

Because I have a courtesy appointment in Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE).

Why do I have a courtesy appointment in ECE?

Because I was elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in 2017, and Jim Garrett (then Dean of Engineering, now Provost) called to congratulate me and invited me to be part of the School of Engineering, offering me a choice of the department where I will be “courtesy” professor.

As I was already working closely with Chemical Engineering for many years (with Ignacio Grossman and his group), and although my undergrad at IIT-Madras was in Mechanical Engineering, I decided this was an opportunity to do something new, and since I like queuing networks and such, I selected ECE.

To be clear, at that time, I had not yet had my Martini at Jake & Joe’s that triggered my immersion into Quantum Computing, which now has led me to oscillation-based computing, which belongs to ECE (and not Mechanical or Chemical Engineering!).

As many of us know, bit stands for binary digit. 

What I did not know, and I was wrong in my guess (not Claude Shannon!), is who coined it.

No, not John von Neumann either, my second guess.

Who then?

John Tukey.


John Wilder Tukey (/ˈtuːki/; June 16, 1915 – July 26, 2000) was an American mathematician best known for development of the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) algorithm and box plot.[2] The Tukey range test, the Tukey lambda distribution, the Tukey test of additivity, and the Teichmüller–Tukey lemma all bear his name. He is also credited with coining the term ‘bit‘.

To my considerable relief:

While working with John von Neumann on early computer designs, Tukey introduced the word “bit” as a contraction of “binary digit”.[10] The term “bit” was first used in an article by Claude Shannon in 1948.

I decided to look into Tukey’s academic background, using the Mathematical Genealogy Project.

Who was his advisor?

Solomon Lefschetz at Princeton.

Who were his (academic) siblings?

Richard Bellman, Ralph Gomory, Albert Tucker (whose students include Marvin Minsky, John Nash, David Gale and Lloyd Shapley).

Who his students were, and their students and so on.

Kai Lai Chung, whose student was Cyrus Derman, whose student was Arthur  F. Veinott Jr. and whose student was Robin Roundy, who was my advisor. 😊

I am a direct descendent of Tukey!😏

Now off to give my seminar, algorithms using qubits!

PS (updated 2021). The Mathematical Genealogy website that had previously listed Tukey as Advisor #2 of Kai-Lai Chung no longer does.

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