Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Leo Beranek

Leo Beranek died this week at the age of 102.  He was a 20th century icon for anyone interested in acoustics.  He demonstrated an early interest in sound by playing drums in high school and then timpani in the Harvard orchestra.  His PhD advisor was Hunt, who was an early pioneer in acoustics and wrote a book giving a historical overview of acoustics.  After obtaining his PhD, Beranek became an assistant professor at MIT and then wrote his magnum opus "Acoustics" published in 1954.  This book is not to be underestimated even given its age.  It is a masterful exposition of the physics of acoustics.

Beranek left MIT to form Bolt, Beranek and Newman (a.k.a. BB&N).  BB&N started out life as an acoustical consulting firm but due to the "acquisition" of J.C.R. Licklider, they also became a computing company.  BB&N was responsible for a number of very notable achievements in the computing domain including the ARPAnet, the Tenex operating system and graphical computing.  They also were responsible for early research in speech DSP.

I met Beranek in 1993 when I was the general chair of the "Mohonk Audio Workshop".  I came up with the idea of having Beranek give a keynote address since I knew he was getting up there in years.  When I called him to see about his availability, he could only stay for one day since he was consulting.  Keep in mind, he was 78 at the time.  He was very proud to announce that he had been the first chair of the IEEE Audio and Electroacoustics committee (I was the current chair at the time).

When I met him, I was impressed.  Beranek was small, I'd say 5'4" maybe.  But you sensed a physical and intellectual dynamo.  He didn't move like he was 78.  He mentioned he  exercised every morning.  Jim Flanagan was at the meeting and I remember how deferential he was to Beranek.  Beranek was also a nice guy, he was very approachable and was intensely involved in the technical discussions.

Beranek published his last paper in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America earlier this year.  It was on concert halls.  He was devoted to the science and measurement of halls.  He wanted to know what physical parameters corresponded with the psychoacoustic experience.  He published several books on the topic.

Beranek was an amazing guy when you read about his career.  His critical life point (in my opinion) was when he helped a guy change his flat tire outside of his father's hardware store.  But this was no ordinary guy, this turned out to be the person who wrote the recommendation that got Beranek into the Harvard graduate school.

Leo Beranek's story is one of those quintessential American stories that charts the life of an exceptional mind from Solon OH to Harvard, MIT and beyond.  He lived a full and extraordinarily productive life and I mourn his passing but celebrate his accomplishments.

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