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Moona Lisa

January 28, 2013

It must have been exciting to have worked in the early days of computing, since there were so many fundamental things waiting to be discovered. Here are a few important examples from the 1960s and 1970s.
• The Quicksort Algorithm
• The Fast Fourier Transform
• Lempel-Ziv Compression
• Reed–Solomon Error Correction
The very useful quicksort algorithm was invented by computer scientist, C.A.R. (Tony) Hoare, in 1960, while he was a visiting student at Moscow State University, working on Russian-to-English translation software. Hoare invented quicksort as a way to make the computer translation more efficient. The algorithm is now widely used, since it sorts efficiently in order O(n log n).[1]

The fast Fourier transform (FFT) algorithm was invented by James Cooley and John Tukey in 1965 while Cooley was at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center and Tukey was sharing his time between Bell Labs and Princeton University. Cooley and Tukey worked at separate times with John von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, where Tukey coined the word, "bit."

Abraxas_Marginata (Lomaspilis marginata) butterfly

A drawing of an Abraxas Marginata (Lomaspilis marginata) butterfly, via Wikimedia Commons.

An important part of the FFT algorithm is the "butterfly," a diagram that shows how to construct the transform from its parts)

the Cooley-Tukey FFT is a recursive algorithm that breaks the Fourier transform into smaller transforms that are calculated separately and combined to obtain the transform.[2] Since so many things mathematical were anticipated by either Euler or Gauss, it's no surprise that it was found that the algorithm was developed by Gauss around 1805 and published after his death.[3-4]

Excerpt from a circa 1805 paper by Carl Friedrich Gauss

An excerpt from the paper of Carl Friedrich Gauss describing trigonometric transforms relevant to the Fourier transform. (Via Université du Sud-Toulon-Var))

Gauss developed his equations to interpolate the orbits of the asteroids, Pallas and Juno. As it turns out, Gauss' work predates even Fourier's publication in 1807, although Fourier would not have known, since Gauss' work was unpublished at the time. Cooley and Tukey extended the results into the computer realm by their analysis of the asymptotic computational time of their FFT.

Abraham Lempel and Jacob Ziv invented their lossless data compression algorithm, called LZ77, in 1977.[5] The Lempel-Ziv algorithm was extended by Terry Welch in 1984 to form Lempel–Ziv–Welch (LZW) compression, which was very important in the early history of the Internet when channel capacities were limited. The IEEE declared these algorithms an IEEE Milestone in 2004.

Irving S. Reed and Gustave Solomon invented their eponymous Reed–Solomon error correction method in 1960. At that time they were able to present an efficient coding algorithm, but not one as efficient for decoding. This was not a major problem, since one of its uses was sending back images and data from the Voyager spacecraft. Coded signals from the spacecraft could be decoded easily by mainframes back on Earth.

Reed–Solomon codes are especially suitable for burst error correction, so they're used for digital data storage devices, such as optical discs, DSL, and some wireless computer communication. It's not possible in a short article to describe how Reed–Solomon codes work, but Wikipedia has a very nice page. In reading that, you can be thankful that mathematicians became interested in computer science.

An interesting application of Reed–Solomon coding was recently in the news. NASA transmitted an image of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa painting via laser to its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around the Moon since 2009. The spacecraft received the laser signal with an onboard instrument and transmitted it back to Earth by radio. This was a proof-of-concept experiment demonstrating that laser communication is possible at near-planetary distances.[6-10]

Figure caption

Reed-Solomon error correction as applied to a laser-transmitted image of the Mona Lisa. The left image shows the raw data, and the right image shows the corrected data. The image was transmitted over a range of nearly a quarter of a million miles from the Earth to Moon orbit. (NASA Goddard image by Xiaoli Sun.)

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has been topographically mapping the moon from an orbit about 31 miles above its surface and making a gravitational map, as well. As part of its normal operations, the LRO is tracked form Earth by laser.[7,10] This laser ranging is accomplished with LRO's Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) in combination with the Next Generation Satellite Laser Ranging station at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland.[7]

NASA scientists were able to add a data stream to this rangefinder without affecting its performance.[7] Says Xiaoli Sun, leader of the team for this experiment,
"Because LRO is already set up to receive laser signals through the LOLA instrument, we had a unique opportunity to demonstrate one-way laser communication with a distant satellite."[7]
The Mona Lisa image was contained in a 152x200 pixel array of 12 bit grayscale data. The data were sent using pulse-position modulation in which the gray value was determined by the position of the laser pulse in a time frame. The data rate was a modest 300 bits per second, but laser communication has a potential for a higher data rate than radio.[7-8,10] The Reed-Solomon coding was used to correct for transmission errors from turbulence in Earth's atmosphere.[7]

Why the Mona Lisa? NASA claims it's because the Mona Lisa is an "iconic" image; and also, because people can recognize when it's been altered.[8] Another reason might be because it's in the public domain in the United States (and at the Moon?). Now that the concept of perpetual copyright has been established, it would have been impossible for NASA to have sent an image of Mickey Mouse without securing special permission.[11]


  1. C. A. R. Hoare, "Quicksort," Computer Journal, vol. 5, no. 1 (1962), pp. 10-16. PDF file, here.
  2. J.W. Cooley and J.W. Tukey, "An algorithm for the machine calculation of complex Fourier," Math. Comput., vol. 19 (1965), pp. 297-301. PDF file, here.
  3. Carl Friedrich Gauss, "Theoria interpolationis methodo nova tractata", Werke, Band 3, Königliche Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, Göttingen, 1866),pp. 265-327 (5.9 MB PDF File).
  4. James W. Cooley and John W.Tukey, "On the Origin and Publication of the FFT Paper," Citation Classics, Current Contents, vol. 33, nos. 51-52 (December 20-27, 1993), pp. 8-9.
  5. J. Ziv and A. Lempel, "A Universal Algorithm for Sequential Data Compression," IEEE Transactions on Information Theory, vol. 23, no. 3 (May, 1977), pp. 337-343.
  6. Xiaoli Sun, David R. Skillman, Evan D. Hoffman, Dandan Mao, Jan F. McGarry, Leva McIntire, Ronald S. Zellar, Frederic M. Davidson, Wai H. Fong, Michael A. Krainak, Gregory A. Neumann, Maria T. Zuber and David E. Smith, "Free space laser communication experiments from Earth to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in lunar orbit," Optics Express, vol. 21, no. 2, (2013), pp. 1865-1871.
  7. Nancy Neal-Jones and Elizabeth Zubritsky, "NASA Beams Mona Lisa to Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter at the Moon," NASA Goddard Press release No. 13-003, January 17, 2013
  8. Matthew Shaer, "Mona Lisa rides laser beams all the way to the moon: NASA," Christian Science Monitor, January 18, 2013.
  9. Alex Knapp, "NASA Uses Lasers To Send The Mona Lisa To The Moon," Forbes, January 18, 2013.
  10. Megan Garber, "We Just Sent the Mona Lisa to the Moon ... With Lasers," The Atlantic, January 17, 2013.
  11. Disney forced the removal of murals featuring their cartoon figures from the walls of three Florida day care centers, as discussed in this Snopes.com article.

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