Unconventional Wisdom: Sidney Burrus
C. Sidney Burrus in his own words
By Lynn Gosnell | Illustration by Adam Cruft
A pioneer in the field of digital signal processing, the recipient of multiple teaching awards and an early advocate for the use of technology in teaching and learning, C. Sidney Burrus ’57 has served Rice with distinction in these and many more ways throughout his career. A native of Abilene who grew up in the small farm community of McKinney, Texas, Burrus was interested in mathematics and science from an early age. After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering at Rice, serving in the Navy and getting his doctorate at Stanford, he and Mary Lee Burrus returned to Houston, at which point he joined Rice’s engineering department. Beginning in the late 1960s, Burrus and colleagues established Rice as a leader in the field of digital signal processing — the methods by which real-world, analog signals like sound, temperature and pressure are converted to digital formats for manipulation and interpretations. In addition to mentoring many young engineers, Burrus, along with Mary Lee, forged strong bonds with students as magisters of Lovett College. We sat down in Burrus’ Abercrombie office for a conversation centered around teaching, inspiration and philosophy. Burrus delivered his insights in a delightfully direct, humorous and generous manner — accented with an unmistakable central Texas twang.
A Little Bit of Wizardry
Both electricity and chemistry fascinated me as a child and teenager. Both seemed to have an element of magic. You could not directly experience them. Most people could not understand them. The person who did understand them was a sort of wizard! A magician! They both required an ability to work with abstractions and models of reality rather than with reality itself. Electrical engineering required math and physics while chemical engineering required chemistry. I liked math better than chemistry, so I chose electrical engineering for my path.
A Teaching Family
My family has a large number of teachers — my mother was a high school math teacher. My wife was a piano teacher. My son is also a high school math teacher, and my daughter is a professor of history. We all seem to have education as the answer to almost any question or problem you have.
Fixing Radios and Mixing Chemicals
I would read about radios and how they worked, and I would repair neighbors’ radios. And the idea that one could use knowledge, not just skills, to do something, gave me some sense of satisfaction. I had an amateur radio license, and I built radios and transmitters and talked to people in South America in Morse code. And my mother asked, why do you want to talk to them? I didn’t know, but the fact that I could just excited me. Also, I had a chemistry set, and I would buy chemicals at the drugstore and blow up things and do all kinds of stuff that drive mothers crazy.
If I Hadn’t Gone to Rice, I Would Have Gone To …
North Texas State. To my eyes, they were both good colleges, but North Texas didn’t have engineering, so I was going to go to Rice. I thought about being a music major. North Texas has very good music school.
Both electricity and chemistry fascinated me as a child and teenager. Both seemed to have an element of magic. You could not directly experience them. Most people could not understand them. The person who did understand them was a sort of wizard!
Theory Over Training
Even a long time ago, I appreciated that there’s something different about the way Rice did things. They didn’t just teach you a recipe. And it was more, here’s why these things happen. And then you figure out sort of the application. Here’s an example. I studied vacuum tubes. Then along about my senior year at Rice, the world was shifting from vacuum tubes to transistors. The people who understood the theory behind the vacuum tubes made that transition easily. The people who’ve been trained, couldn’t make the transition; people who’ve been educated, could.
On the Difference Between Science and Engineering
Science tries to describe the world as we find it, but engineering tries to create things that don’t exist in the world. Laws of science would exist whether humans existed or not. But the objects of engineering — such as airplanes, cars, radios and whatnot — they’re purely a human creation. It would be difficult to look at something divine about the creation of a car! There is something quite human about engineering, where science is in a different realm. Science is truth in a very pure and abstract sense.
Mentors and Role Models
In my junior year at Rice, Paul Pfeiffer ’38 became my primary role model or mentor. [Note: Pfeiffer earned three degrees from Rice, two in electrical engineering and a Ph.D. in mathematics, and was one of Rice’s longest serving and most beloved faculty members.] Pfeiffer was a mentor at a time in my life when I saw things that I could not have seen without him.
Science tries to describe the world as we find it, but engineering tries to create things that don’t exist in the world. Laws of science would exist whether humans existed or not. But the objects of engineering — such as airplanes, cars, radios and whatnot — they’re purely a human creation.
In addition to my interest in electricity, I was always curious as to where ideas come from. Thomas Edison was fascinating to me. I enjoyed reading stories about inventors, people who seemed to create an idea out of nothing. Some inventors were members of groups, others were loners. Some would modify an old idea so that it seemed to evolve into something new. Others would propose a totally different idea, almost as a revolution against the old.
As an adult, I found a wonderful description of my dilemma: Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” where he described the evolutionary development in scientific research, which was punctuated occasionally by a revolutionary “paradigm shift.” For example, if one takes a model of the solar system centered around the Earth and replaces it with a model centered around the sun, it’s a radical jump. It is resisted by the establishment. In education, progress is basically evolutionary. But education should prepare a student to deal with a revolution that cannot be predicted.
A Role Reversal
Today, I have a mentor who is 30 years younger than me — Rich Baraniuk.* In effect, I was his mentor, and then we switched roles. The classical situation is that you have a mentor, then you have to have a break with a mentor. To prove your independence, you have to have some kind of a usually traumatic experience where you reject a mentor, or he/she rejects you. But with Rich, he became a person from whom I was learning. It is unusual, and I think both Rich and I chuckle about it.
The Concept of Models
In electrical engineering, everything is a model, because you can’t deal with electricity directly. Now, to me, what’s quite interesting, and what I have taught in the Masters of Liberal Studies program is a course about how people build models of political systems, economic systems and psychological systems. Marx had a model. Adam Smith had a model. Philosophers have models. I’m quite fond of the philosopher Carl Popper, who said, “If you have a theory, meaning a model, that cannot be falsifiable, if there’s no experiment that I can run that will show that that model is false, then the whole theory is worthless.”
The Personalization of Education
What I can do is look at how you’re performing on your homework in math and see you’ve got matrix algebra down, but you’re not very good on polynomials. So I will present material to you on polynomials. Look, here’s your textbook. I want you to have a textbook that’s suited exactly to what you have, what you’re good at and where you want to go.
Every student has a story. They come out of all sorts of either privileged situations they’ve got to get over or horrible situations they’ve got to get over. But, growing up is a process. It is a lot more than doing calculus homework.
Access to Knowledge is only the Beginning
Technology can provide an absolutely first-rank, first-rate education. But there’s a motivational side to this that technology cannot fix. In a way, that’s true about technology in general. I’m going to give you a machine to wash your clothes, transport you to places, plow your fields, take care of all this stuff that used to totally consume your life. I’m going to fix that for you. Now, what are you going to do?
The Rise of Graduate Education at Rice
The Rice that I went to was a much better undergraduate school than it was a graduate school. And what Rice has been doing for the past 40 or 50 years is building up its graduate program. My own personal feelings are that the undergraduate and graduate schools here should be about equal size. Rice has a balance and that is probably where they should be.
Why Drive an Electric Car
We’re experiencing a transition in history from the old way of transportation to the new way. You have an opportunity to participate. The people who just keep driving their old Ford with an internal combustion engine, they’re not participating in this transition. Is it better? Maybe, maybe not. But at least you’re out there doing something.
Lovett College Lessons
Being a college magister was an experience I’m very glad I had. It allowed me to better understand that a student’s life is a great deal more than what you see in teaching. They have an incredibly rich life outside of what you see that may dominate how they look. Every student has a story. They come out of all sorts of either privileged situations they’ve got to get over or horrible situations they’ve got to get over. But, growing up is a process. It is a lot more than doing calculus homework.
Plenty of people are interested in something in which it’s not possible to earn a living. I could earn a living from what I was truly interested in. And more than that, I could actually achieve something. That is luck.
C. Sidney Burrus is the Maxfield and Oshman Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
*Rich Baraniuk is the Victor E. Cameron Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice and the founder and director of the open education initiatives OpenStax and Connexions.