Blue Devil of the Week: Unleashing the Capabilities of Communication Systems
Name: Henry Pfister
Position: Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mathematics
Years at Duke: 8
What he does at Duke: Hidden in everything from credit card numbers to the long sequences of digits that underlie computer and communications systems, there are algorithms that ensure that the information these numbers carry is not derailed by small digital imperfections, oddities or what electrical engineers call “noise”. Called “error-correcting codes,” these mathematical guarantees play a quiet but crucial role in the digital age. And having systems capable of quickly decoding error-correcting codes allows information to be transmitted instantaneously.
In addition to teaching high-level design courses, Professor Henry Pfister spent years working with a colleague Galen Reeves, professor of electrical and computer engineering and statistical science, to prove that Reed-Muller codes can reach the fundamental limit of reliable communication. These particular “error-correcting codes” have also played an important role in wireless communications. the mathematical proof that Pfister and Reeves developed, tested and released last fall, shows how much error-free information can be transmitted using these codes, potentially unlocking breakthroughs in the efficiency of communication systems.
“We’ve seen a possible path, but working out the details along the way, you can get stuck for a while, and it’s not clear if it’s going to work,” Pfister said. “And then sometimes you keep going and it works.”
What he likes about Duke: Pfister appreciates the spirit of academic collaboration within Duke’s faculty. He often interacts with fellow faculty members who have appointments in areas such as computer science, statistics, and mathematics, which helps provide new perspectives on the topics he studies. And Pfister said the vibe extends beyond work.
“People here are very friendly,” Pfister said. “There is a good social atmosphere and they have created spaces on campus where people can meet and talk. It’s very collegial.
Best advice received: Pfister said he’s often heard people say that if you find something you enjoy doing, you should try to pursue it. But he would add his own twist to this oft-repeated advice, saying the ability to stay flexible while following your passions can often lead to unexpected and fruitful opportunities.
“There’s a lot of time and flexibility in your life to do new things and do different things,” Pfister said. “So keep an eye on what excites you.”
Something he likes about his workplace: Pfister’s office in Gross Hall has a whiteboard and photos of family members. But perhaps the most valuable item is just steps away. Pfister said that about once a month he’ll get stuck on a problem, so he ventures onto the Sarah P. Duke Gardenswhere he can walk the trails or sit in some of the quiet places and let his mind sort out a solution.
“Obviously you can walk the main paths, but you can also go off the beaten path and find benches and other spaces that they have set up for people,” Pfister said.
Something most people don’t know about him: On January 25, 1987, Pfister became the center of the sports world. At Super Bowl XXI halftime, Pfister was one of hundreds of volunteer performers who got to be part of the halftime show.
“I was dressed as a cowboy and had a hobby horse, I think we did a little dance,” Pfister said.
Titled “The World of Make Believe”, the show was to be a tribute to Hollywood’s 100th anniversary. It featured Hollywood legends George Burns and Mickey Rooney, Disney characters as well as marching bands from Grambling State University, University of Southern California and Los Angeles area high schools.
“In things like this, you have a few people who get paid and know what they’re doing, and then a whole bunch of people doing the same dance moves by the hundreds,” Pfister said. “I was in this group. We just had to show up a few weekends and learn our dance moves. Other than that, they were just looking for people who could walk and follow directions.
When he is not working, he likes: You can often find Pfister exploring the outdoors near his Durham home. The hiking trails in Eno River State Park have become a favorite pastime in recent years, often hiking with his wife, 12-year-old daughter, or campus friends and colleagues. For a Los Angeles native, closeness to nature is something Pfister cherishes.
“Being able to drive 10 minutes and be by a river and among the trees, I really appreciate that,” Pfister said.
Lesson learned during the pandemic: When the pandemic forced him to stay home more and limit his social interactions, Pfister said it helped him gain a new respect for simple pleasures, like walking outside or chatting with friends. . He said giving himself time to savor such moments helped him stay present and grateful for what each day brings.
“I think that forced a lot of people to slow down,” Pfister said. “And enjoying the process of slowing down, it caused them to re-evaluate things. It made them appreciate simpler things.
Is there a colleague at Duke who has intriguing work or who goes above and beyond to make a difference? Nominate that person for the Blue Devil of the Week.