Princeton Electrical Engineering Pioneer Dies


Borough resident Stuart Schwartz, a pioneer of mathematical methods for efficiently transmitting information and an instrumental force in building the electrical engineering department at Princeton University, died Saturday, Aug. 27. He was 72.

Schwartz, who joined the Princeton faculty in 1966 and retired in 2009, died from complications from pneumonia while vacationing with family in New Hampshire last week.

The inventor on six patents, Schwartz built a reputation as a leader in an area of information theory known as estimation and detection, which involves creating algorithms to extract useful signals from a “noisy” or incoherent background. Later he applied his expertise to numerous aspects of communications, including wireless technology. He played a key role in developing mathematical models of “multipath” signals — transmissions that reflect and interfere in complex ways before reaching a receiver.

Schwartz was born in New York City in 1939 and re received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1961. He worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the project to put a person on the moon before returning to school to earn a Ph.D. in information and control engineering at the University of Michigan in 1966. The same year he came to Princeton.

His tenure at Princeton included nine years as the first chair of the electrical engineering department.

Colleagues credit Schwartz with bringing a unique combination of intellect, vision, persuasiveness and compassion to bear in driving the department through a period of rapid growth and laying the foundation for its current reputation as one of the best in the nation.

“Stu’s influence was profound,” said H. Vincent Poor, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “The very fine department we see today was in large part crafted by him during his critical years as department chair.”

Schwartz became chair in 1985, the year the department split off from the computer science department. Colleagues said the future of the department was far from certain then.

“A lot of people thought electrical engineering was old-fashioned and was going away,” Professor James Sturm said. “He foresaw that the intersection of semiconductors and photonics with computers and communication would make the field increasingly important.”
Schwartz built two major new research areas, photonics and computer engineering. Photonics is the use of light instead of electricity to carry information.

He also encouraged an unprecedented focus on entrepreneurship and work with industry. He developed a  flagship research program at Princeton, the Center for Photonic and Optoelectronic Materials, which was known as POEM. He also cultivated a relationship with the New Jersey Council on Science and Technology, which funded not only the start-up and initial operations of the center, but also the construction of a wing of the engineering quadrangle, which housed the center, faculty, students and industrial partners.

Colleagues said Schwartz was a relentless, sometimes fierce advocate for his department, colleagues and students.

“Stu cared enormously for his department, and for the engineering school, but he also cared for the University as a whole,” said President Emeritus Harold T. Shapiro, who became a close family friend of Schwartz and his wife, Mimi. “He was one of those faculty members whose generosity of spirit toward all members of the Princeton University community provided some of the necessary institutional glue on which all great universities depend.”

Even after his retirement, Schwartz continued some research and had been working up until his death on a U.S. Army-funded project on using wireless signals for geolocation.

In addition to his wife, Schwartz is survived his children, Julie Mazer and Alan Schwartz; their spouses, Douglas Mazer and Yuka Schwartz; and five grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to National Public Radio or in his name to the Princeton Area Community Foundation.