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Michael Lesk, Who Helped Build the Computer Operating System Unix, Transitions to Professor Emeritus


Impacts of Technology Adoption on Various Users in a Digital Era

Dr. Michael Lesk


Professor of Library and Information Science Michael Lesk, a computer scientist who was among the group of scientists at AT&T Corporation’s Bell Laboratories who built the computer operating system Unix in the early 1970s, has transitioned to Faculty Emeritus effective July 1, 2023.


“In addition to his many scholarly accomplishments, Michael has been an outstanding citizen of the school,” SC&I Interim Dean Dafna Lemish said. “He served as department chair and program director, and then came to the rescue several times as acting chair when the department had emergencies. He not only agreed to serve on a variety of committees when asked to, he also recognized needs and volunteered to do work even when he was not asked. During his time at SC&I we could always count on him to support the department and school in many ways. He will be missed.”

At Bell Labs, Lesk created Unix tools for word processing, developed LEX for compiling in UNIX, introduced the “Lesk algorithm,” a classical algorithm for word sense disambiguation, authored the Portable I/O Library, and assisted in the development of the C language preprocessor.

In addition to working with Unix software, Lesk has also spent his career working in digital libraries, information economics, and digital preservation. He conducted many of the retrieval experiments and wrote much of its retrieval code for the SMART Information Retrieval System project.

After earning a Ph.D. in Chemical Physics from Harvard University in 1969, (Lesk also earned a bachelor’s degree in Physics and Chemistry from Harvard), Lesk spent 14 years as a member of the technical staff at Bell Labs.

When a section of Bell Labs became Bellcore, Lesk then spent fifteen years leading the Computer Science Research Department at Bellcore, including three years as Bellcore’s Chief Research Scientist. In 1987, he took a leave from Bell Labs to spend a year as a Senior Visiting Fellow at the British Library (at University College London).

Lesk left Bellcore in 1998 and until 2002 he worked at the National Science Foundation (NSF) as the Division Director in Information and Intelligent Systems.

During this period of his career, he also spent several years as an adjunct lecturer in Computer Science at Columbia University.


In 2003 Lesk joined the faculty of the Library and Information Science Department at the School of Communication and Information (then named the School of Communication, Information and Library Studies (SCILS)), Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

During 20 years Lesk served on the faculty, he taught and mentored hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students, and he served as chair of the department from 2005- 2008. In 2009 he spent a sabbatical as a visiting researcher at Google.

He has taught the undergraduate and graduate courses Digital Libraries; Digital Library Technology; Fundamentals of Data Science; Data Analytics; Data Curation/Digital Curation; Database Design and Management; Preservation; Introduction to Information Technologies; The Internet and the Information Environment; and Data Analytics.


He is the author of hundreds of papers, and he has delivered hundreds of talks at universities and conferences all over the world. He is the author of the book “Understanding Digital Libraries,” (Morgan Kaufmann, San Francisco 2004), which is the second edition of a book originally titled “Practical Digital Libraries.”

Over the course of his career, Lesk has received many awards and significant recognition for his outstanding contributions to Unix; his research in Information Retrieval; and his work on the design and implementation of multimedia Digital Libraries. These include the "Flame" award for lifetime achievement from Usenix in 1994; his election to the National Academy of Engineering in 2005; and his election as a Fellow of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) in 2006.

Lesk has served as chair of the National Academies Board on Research Data and Information (2008-2010); ACM SIGIR (Special Interest Group on Information Retrieval), 1983-1985; and ACM SIGLASH (Special Interest Group on Language Analysis and Studies in the Humanities) from 1973-1975.

SC&I Professor Emeritus of Library and Information Science Paul Kantor said he first heard of Lesk when Lesk was working at Bell Labs and Kantor was on a sabbatical at OCLC. “The Research Director, Martin Dillon, said to me, ‘you should come to this talk -- Michael Lesk from Bell Labs is here. He is the smartest person I've ever met.’ In a fairly long career, I have studied or worked with some nine Nobel Laureates, and I would say Michael is right up there.”


Kantor said he first began to know Lesk personally while he was on a Fulbright in Norway. “Michael, who was at the NSF at the time, called me. I could not be heard. He explained that I had to make a noise before talking, so that the phone would know to listen to me instead of him. So, all those years at the phone company were not wasted.


“Somewhere during those years, Lesk had the insight he shared in his famous paper: ‘Automatic sense disambiguation using machine readable dictionaries: how to tell a pine cone from an ice cream cone.’ That insight is what gives the alarming Large Language Models enough simulated understanding that they now scare the pants of all of us who work by pushing words onto paper or the Internet.”


When Kantor and Lesk eventually worked together as colleagues on the SC&I faculty, Kantor said Lesk as a student mentor “knew that doing a Ph.D. is not a career choice, but a steppingstone, and he helped his students to step off that stone as quickly as possible and get on with their lives.


“When Michael became department chair, he ruffled a lot of feathers by suggesting at department meetings that each of us could continue to say what we usually said, but please, only one time. He finally resorted to showing the agenda with time stamps on a screen, to help remind all of us that some of us had other things we could do with our lives.


“As the chair, Michael was very fair, working hard to secure promotions for people whose work did not move him at all, provided we could show that the people who do that kind of work recognized it to be good.


“Personally, it was a delight and privilege to have him as a colleague from his arrival to my retirement (and as a trusted advisor on some very interesting research since then). Conversations with Michael, at lunch, or in an office, were the high points of the job. He has an ability to see what is at the root of a problem, and to know whether it is already solved, or solvable, or not worth the time. Rutgers was fortunate to have him.”


Associate Professor of Practice, Library and Information Science Marc Aronson said, “Michael is the smartest person I have ever met. He never advertises or shows off his intelligence. Just the opposite -- he is clear, plain spoken, but he cuts through the chatter and shines a light on the essence of whatever we are discussing or thinking --- he is seeing a step ahead of the rest of us. When we began talking about AI he said, ‘we've been here before: think of painting when photography was invented. There was a new way of capturing images -- which gave painters new assignments.’ Brilliant.”


Associate Teaching Professor, Library and Information Science Joyce Kasman Valenza said, “For years, I knew of Michael Lesk as a pioneer in the field of computer science. During my time at SC&I, I had the honor of connecting with Michael as an esteemed colleague. Michael has the remarkable ability to cut through the noise and delve straight into the heart of important questions. I will greatly miss his wisdom and sharp wit, his talent for catching us off guard with clever insights during interviews, presentations, and meetings. Michael has made a profound impact on the lives of countless students. I wish him the very best on all the new journeys he chooses to take.”


Looking ahead, Lesk said he is considering writing another book, one for a more popular audience.


Learn more about the Library and Information Science Department on the Rutgers School of Communication and Information website.


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