Pearls of Wisdom from Martin Hellman – 2015 ACM A.M. Turing Award Laureate

Whit comes through after meeting up with David Kahn in New York, and he comes up to Yorktown, maybe in the fall of ’74, a couple months after me, and he meets with the same group. Alan Konheim tells him roughly the same thing that he told me, that he couldn’t say very much due to the secrecy order. But then he added that, when Whit got back to Stanford, he ought to look me up since we seemed to be interested in the same kinds of things. So when Whit got back out the Bay Area, he called me and we set up probably a half-hour meeting in my Stanford office. It was such a meeting of the minds, that that “half-hour meeting” ended at 11 o’clock that night. Let’s say we met at 3:30, and after however much time I had, maybe an hour and a half, I had to go home and watch my young daughters. I said, ‘I’d love to continue this conversation, but I have to go home and watch my daughters, if you don’t mind, it’s just five minutes away on campus and we could continue there.’ He connected with his wife, Mary Fischer, they both came to dinner, and the four of us talked and talked and talked until 11 o’clock that night.

Diane Crawford (2016)

Photo by Richard Morgenstein – courtesy of ACM (pictured: Martin Hellman and Whitfield Diffie)

There’s a mystery to life. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but the (ACM A.M.) Turing Award came just before Dorothie and I had our book ready, and we’re going to use our half of the million dollars to further our efforts on creating a more peaceful, more sustainable world. We’ll put most of it or all of it into pushing the book and its ideas. Not only the money, but the publicity that comes with the (ACM A.M.) Turing Award came at just the right time. A number of people have said, ‘You should have gotten this years ago,’ and I said, ‘No, no, no, no, we got it at just the right time.’ There have been other coincidences that are even more unbelievable that, it’s enough to make me believe in a mystical side of life.

The fact that I’ve won all these awards, including the (ACM A.M.) Turing Award, for doing something that was seen as foolish says that sometimes what appears foolish, is actually very wise.

What’s the title of the book?
We’ve called it A New Map for Relationships: Creating True Love at Home and Peace on the Planet. We’re thinking about how we put the blurb on the back of the book, and I suggested half-jokingly to Dorothie that we should start off, ‘Martin Hellman is a world-class fool’. Remember that, when I started working in cryptography, all my colleagues thought I was crazy, and they had very good reasons why it was not a good area to work in. But the fact that I’ve won all these awards, including the (ACM A.M.) Turing Award, for doing something that was seen as foolish says that sometimes what appears foolish, is actually very wise.
Three years ago, when I was inducted as one of Stanford’s “Engineering Heroes”, the talk I gave as part of that was on the wisdom of foolishness. In addition to my own experience, I used several other examples. Vint Cerf, who is a Heidelberg Laureate, I knew had had a similar experience, so I emailed him and he sent me back a key quote: “Packet switching was regarded as crazy, even after the great example of the ARPANET.” Brad Parkinson, who pushed GPS, wrote and told me, “The Air Force thought GPS was foolish.”

So that’s the idea behind possibly having the back of the book say, ‘Martin Hellman is a world-class fool’. It’s foolish to write a book hoping to reduce the divorce rate, end needless wars, and end the nuclear threat. Those are foolish goals and I doubt we’ll achieve them, but you can always hope. And, if we make even a dent in those huge problems, it will be a major success.

How many years were you working in cryptography being told you were a fool by colleagues that you respect?
I started thinking about cryptography in ’68-’69 when I was at Yorktown. I started thinking about it more seriously, working on it a little bit, from ’69-’71 when I taught at MIT. I’d say, if you’d have to put a date on it, it was roughly 1972 that I got serious about cryptography, and so it was about four years that my colleagues thought I was crazy.

It was like being in the desert and coming across an oasis when I met Whit.

Was Whitfield Diffie the first person with whom you could talk about it more freely and who had similar ideas?
Yes, that’s why our first conversation lasted until 11 o’clock that night. I kind of like being a maverick and when my colleagues told me I was crazy, instead of scaring me off, it probably attracted me, but it still was getting lonely working in a vacuum. In fact that’s something that Alan Konheim told Whit when he said ‘look up Hellman when you get back to Stanford.’ Something like, ‘Two people can work on problems much better than one’, and that was really true. It was like being in the desert and coming across an oasis when I met Whit.