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STEPHEN O. RICE 298
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Stephen O. Rice
STEPHEN O. RICE 298
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Stephen O. Rice
By David Slepian
Stephen O. "Steve" Rice, a communications engineer of worldwide renown
and a pioneer in the applications of probability techniques to engineering
problems, died of pulmonary fibrosis on November 18, 1986, at the Scripps
Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, California. He was seventy-eight. During the
previous fourteen years, he had served on the staff of the University of
California, San Diego, as a research physicist in electrical engineering and
computer sciences. He will be missed by the engineering community for his
special talents and his scientific contributions; he will be sorely missed by those
who knew and loved him for the fine man he was.
Steve Rice was born on November 29, 1907, in the small town of Shedds,
Oregon, the only child of Stephen Rice, a buttermaker, and Selma R. Bergren.
Some years later the family moved to Astoria, Oregon, where Steve finished his
secondary education. Subsequently, he entered Oregon State University,
Corvallis, and there received a B.S. in electrical engineering in 1929. It was
during his senior year that he met Inez Biersdorf, who two years later became his
wife and lifelong companion.
The academic year 1929-30 was spent in Pasadena, California, where Steve
undertook graduate studies in physics at the California Institute of Technology. In
the fall of 1930, he
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joined Bell Telephone Laboratories, then located in New York City in lower
Manhattan. For the next forty-one years until his retirement in 1972, Bell was to
remain Steve's technical home and the center of his professional activities. His
first job there was with a small group of mathematically inclined engineers
involved in transmission research. The mathematical analysis of communication
systems became and remained his primary technical interest.
During his long career with Bell Laboratories, Rice's official title, his
department, and his location of work changed several times, but the nature of his
work remained much the same. His great talent was recognized very early, and
Steve was soon given a free hand to pursue research of his own interest. These
interests, inspired by the problems he saw about him, fortunately overlapped
closely those of the Laboratories, and so a fruitful and lasting partnership was
made. As Steve's contributions became known and as his reputation grew, he was
actively sought out as a consultant by many different groups within the
Laboratories. In this role, he was invaluable. At the time of his retirement from
Bell, Steve's title was "Head, Communication Theory Department" and his work
location was Murray Hill, New Jersey. In this role he oversaw a small group of
top theorists and pursued his own research.
Rice had two periods of leave from Bell. In the depths of the depression, he
returned for a year to the California Institute of Technology where he undertook
further graduate studies while working on the Bateman Manuscript Project. This
group prepared the first modern comprehensive series of volumes on the integral
transforms and transcendental special functions of applied mathematics. Rice's
deep knowledge of the classical special functions shows up in many of his later
research papers. He was indeed a master of the classical analytic techniques their
use demands. His second leave came much later when he served in 1958 as a
Gordon McKay visiting lecturer at Harvard University.
Rice published sixty-three scientific papers during his career.
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With a few exceptions they fall into five categories: electromagnetic theory,
applied mathematics, communication devices and systems, traffic theory, and
noise theory. His work greatly influenced each of these fields. His contributions
were always original and deep; many were seminal. His 1950 paper
"Communication in the Presence of Noise" was the first in the new field of
Information Theory to evaluate explicitly bounds on the error probability
attainable with ideal systems. It preceded by ten years a burst of similar activity
that occupied the information theorists in the 1960s. His 1951 paper "Reflection
of Electromagnetic Waves from Slightly Rough Surfaces" was fundamental to the
understanding of radar return from the ocean and celestial bodies. It was an early
application to two dimensions of his methods in applied stochastic processes. The
famous 1963 paper ''Noise in FM Receivers" with its ingenious original definition
and analysis of "clicks" solved the long mystery of the sudden deterioration of FM
above a certain threshold of noise and gave the most profound treatment of that
One could cite other contributions of similar unusual merit, but it is for the
monumental paper "Mathematical Analysis of Random Noise," published in two
parts in the Bell System Technical Journal, Vol. 23, July 1944, pp. 282-332, and
Vol. 24, January 1945, pp. 46-156, that Steve will be best remembered. This long
paper, really a treatise, laid the foundations of noise theory and at the same time
solved many of its most interesting, important, and difficult problems. The paper
has been of utmost importance in communication theory, ocean engineering,
material engineering, aircraft design and analysis, and many other fields of
technology where random phenomena play a significant role. That today, forty-
six years later, this work is cited fifty times or more a year in papers from a dozen
different fields is testimony to its enduring contribution.
The genesis of this famous paper merits comment. In the early 1940s Rice
and many other Bell Laboratories engineers
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pursued graduate studies at Columbia University on a part-time basis. Many
ultimately received their doctorates in this program. Rice did not. He completed
his course work and submitted a highly original thesis, the result of many years
of work and interest in applied probability. According to an oft-repeated story,
which I have not been able to verify, the thesis was submitted to two different
departments. Each rejected it, claiming that it was not in their purview. Be that as
it may, for whatever reason the thesis was not accepted, and Steve gave up the
goal of higher degrees. The submitted work was, of course, the paper
"Mathematical Analysis of Random Noise." Years later, for his role in founding
the new field that grew from this rejected thesis, he received an honorary D.Sc.
from his alma mater Oregon State University.
In his forty years of active work after the appearance of "Mathematical
Analysis of Random Noise," Steve published many additional papers that
extended the theory and applied it to diverse situations of engineering interest.
Almost always in these researches he was motivated by a concrete physical
problem, and the mathematics he developed were incidental to the goal of solving
the physical problem. Not content with results that were left as formulas, he
would always evaluate complicated expressions and present curves and
numerical results to illustrate the physical problem. Often these evaluations called
for the invention of special techniques of approximation or of numerical analysis,
and these Steve published as separate contributions to the mathematics literature.
Highly skilled in mathematics and appreciative of the needs of rigor, yet
motivated by real world problems and blessed with great originality and physical
insight, Steve Rice was the ideal theoretical engineer.
After his retirement from Bell in 1972, Steve and his wife moved to La
Jolla, California, where he joined the staff of the University of California with the
title research physicist in electrical engineering and computer sciences. He had no
official duties there but could be found daily in his
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office from 7 a.m. until noon pursuing his researches and giving freely of his time
to students and faculty alike. Afternoons were spent with his family. He
continued his researches actively up to the time of his death.
Steve received a number of awards in recognition of his technical
achievements. He was a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics
Engineers and received its M. J. Kelly Award in 1965 and their Alexander Graham
Bell Award in 1983. As already noted, he was honored with a D.Sc from Oregon
State in 1961. He received the National Telecommunications Conference
Outstanding Contribution Award in 1974. His election to the National Academy
of Engineering was in 1977.
Great as were his technical achievements, to those of us who worked with
him throughout the years Steve made an even greater contribution. He showed us
how fine and how noble the nature of man can be. Steve was soft-spoken, quiet in
his ways—a somewhat private person, yet with the greatest charity to all. He gave
unstintingly of his time to all who asked. His patience seemed endless. He was
the most genuinely modest person I have ever known. He seemed totally unaware
of his very considerable accomplishments and talents. He coveted neither
authority, fame, nor power. His life was his work, his family, and the
demonstration of kindness to all.
Steve is survived by his wife, Inez; a son, Stephen E. Rice of Del Mar,
California; two daughters, Carole Hanau of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, and
Joan McHugh of San Diego, California; nine grandchildren and two great-
grandchildren. By these and by all who knew him well, this kind and talented
man will be forever missed.