The Laureates

Copyright © Klaus Tschira Stiftung / Peter Badge

Leonard Max Adleman

Born 31 December 1945, San Francisco, California, USA

Turing Award (2002, together with Ronald Rivest and Adi Shamir) for the practical implementation of public-key encryption

‘Len’ Adleman grew up in San Francisco as the son of a technical equipment salesman and a bank teller. Inspired by the American children’s science programme ‘Mr. Wizard’, he first aspired to become a chemist, and then a doctor. But he finally obtained his Bachelor of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, in Mathematics (1968). After graduating, he took a job as a computer programmer at the Bank of America (1968). Eventually, Adleman returned to Berkeley, where he took his Ph.D. in Computer Science in 1976. From 1976 to 1980 he worked at the Mathematics Department of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, first as an instructor (1976), then as assistant professor (1977) and finally as associate professor (1979). In 1980 he moved to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. There, he served initially as tenured associate professor (1980), and then as a full professor (1983). Adleman is now the Distinguished Henry Salvatori Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southern California.

Adleman is a member of the National Academy of Engineering (1996), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2006) and the National Academy of Sciences (2007). He was awarded the Paris Kanellakis Theory and Practice Award together with Whitfield Diffie, Martin Hellman, Ralph Merkle, Ronald Rivest and Adi Shamir (1996). Together with  Rivest and Shamir, he received the IEEE Kobayashi Award for Computers and Communications Award (2000). In addition, Adleman is an amateur boxer who has trained alongside several professional world champions. Adleman was the ‘mathematical consultant’ on the movie Sneakers (USA 1992, starring Robert Redford, River Phoenix and others). For that movie he wrote the line ‘a breakthrough of Gaussian proportions’ thinking that the prince of mathematics could use a plug.

Without doubt, Leonard Adleman’s most famous work is his contribution to the RSA algorithm (named after him, Rivest and Shamir) published in 1978 under the title “A Method for Obtaining Digital Signatures and Public-Key Cryptosystems”. RSA is an algorithm which allows data to be encrypted; it is one of the bedrocks of security on the internet.

Adleman is also known for his work in number theory. His primality tests, and algorithms for discrete logarithms are among his many contributions. In recent years Adleman has focused on the interface between biology and computation. He is the father of the field of DNA computation. DNA can store information and proteins can modify that information. These two features assure us that DNA can be used to compute all things that are computable by silicon based computers. Adleman showed experimentally that DNA can be used to compute by solving an instance of the SAT problem, one of the central problems of computer science. Adleman currently dedicates himself to research in complex analysis.