Time was right for math ge­nius

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE -

IF you think al­go­rithms have some­thing to do with mu­sic, you may strug­gle to ap­pre­ci­ate the beauty of what Daniel M. Lewin did.

A grad­u­ate stu­dent at the em­i­nent Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (MIT) in 1998, Lewin de­signed a set of com­plex math­e­mat­i­cal al­go­rithms (a step-by-step way of solv­ing a prob­lem) that nev­er­the­less was mu­sic to the ears of the tech world be­cause it cre­ated a far su­pe­rior de­liv­ery plat­form for the In­ter­net.

In a bi­og­ra­phy ti­tled No Bet­ter Time, Wash­ing­ton science jour­nal­ist Molly Knight Raskin paints a com­pas­sion­ate ac­count of a math­e­mat­i­cal boy ge­nius born in the United States who served early on in Is­rael’s top com­mando force and then, while at univer­sity in the U.S., be­came filthy rich al­most overnight by in­vent­ing tech­nol­ogy to help make the In­ter­net the world-chang­ing so­cial and com­mer­cial en­gine it is today.

Fi­nally, and sadly, be­cause of his courage, Lewin most likely ended up the first vic­tim of 9/11 when as a pas­sen­ger in busi­ness class he tried to over­power the ter­ror­ists fly­ing Amer­i­can Air­lines Flight 11 into the World Trade Cen­ter in New York and was prob­a­bly stabbed to death for his trou­bles. He was 31.

Wher­ever he is now, the ir­rev­er­ent, ar­gu­men­ta­tive, ag­gres­sive Danny Lewin is prob­a­bly laugh­ing him­self silly over the irony that fol­lowed his mur­der.

As Raskin de­scribes it, here’s how Lewin’s life played out: Af­ter years of strug­gle rais­ing a fam­ily (in­clud­ing sweeping the halls of his apart­ment block for a cut in his rent), he was do­ing his grad­u­ate de­gree at MIT un­der the tute­lage of his pro­fes­sor, men­tor and close friend Tom Leighton when he came up with his sen­sa­tional com­puter breakthrough. It hugely im­proved how in­for­ma­tion could flow on the In­ter­net and al­lowed the ser­vice com­pany they formed to carry un­heard-of amounts of traf­fic for its clients.

The pair’s Akamai Tech­nolo­gies and its de­liv­ery net­work made truck­loads of money — and then be­gan to lose it when the dot-com in­vest­ment bub­ble started burst­ing in 2000. They looked doomed when their clients be­gan go­ing out of busi­ness and their in­vestors were threat­en­ing to bail out.

But then 9/11 hap­pened and the Twin Tow­ers col­lapsed. As a re­sult, phone com­mu­ni­ca­tions failed be­cause of un­prece­dented vol­ume and web traf­fic surged dan­ger­ously. How­ever, the news and govern­ment sites re­ly­ing on Akamai per­formed su­perbly.

So, iron­i­cally, the ter­ror­ists may have un­wit­tingly saved Lewin and his part­ner’s com­pany be­cause the cri­sis these killers sparked proved be­yond a doubt the bril­liance of their new tech­nol­ogy and went a long way to en­sur­ing it sur­vived the dot­com bust.

That les­son, plus the com­pany’s com­mit­ment to pre­serve Lewin’s mem­ory, spurred it to carry on and suc­ceed might­ily in the still-dif­fi­cult years ahead.

Today, Akamai Tech­nolo­gies’ net­work cir­cles the globe, em­ploys 3,500 peo­ple, boasts a mar­ket cap­i­tal­iza­tion of $6.9 bil­lion and han­dles more than 20 per cent of all web traf­fic. It is head­quar­tered in Cam­bridge, Mass.

There’s more fas­ci­na­tion to be found in this short 250-page bi­og­ra­phy than many a longer one.

For ex­am­ple, Raskin’s use of a “pony ex­press” model is im­pres­sive in ex­plain­ing in lay­man’s terms how the web works and the de­vel­op­ment prob­lems it faced in the early ’90s.

No Bet­ter Time is the chron­i­cle of a man who gave his life to tech­nol­ogy and gave his life for mankind.

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