Alumni Award Recipients
Zimmerman Award, 2009
Back when the rest of America was figuring out the right answer on the game-show Who Do You Trust?, Gus Simmons was figuring out the answer to the question: how do you trust? And the stakes for Gus involved much more than the $1200 the TV contestants could win. The stakes for Gus involved national security: command and control of nuclear weapons, compliance with arms control treaties, and more.
Born in the West Virginia coal camps at the beginning of the great depression, in a home without indoor plumbing, electricity or a telephone, Gus retired in 1993 from Sandia Labs as a senior fellow—the first person so named by the Labs. His primary area of concentration was cryptography—in layman's terms, writing and solving codes.
In the almost 40 years since his initial employment there, Gus became known as the "father of authentication theory," having devised a mathematical protocol for sending encrypted messages that could be trusted, even though some of the inputs or participants could not be. Not only is Gus' work critical to national security, it has become critical to all of the commerce we now conduct online.
A UNM colleague, Roger Entringer, calls Gus a "personable genius." A Sandia Labs colleague and one-time supervisor, Bill Myre, calls Gus "the smartest of the smart" whom he almost never met. Here's Bill's account:
"I met Gus in 1953 when we both worked in the Field Test Organization. A friend in the data playback station told me the smartest guy in the building worked there. I'd visited the playback station often but had never seen Gus.
"Gus was a new technician assigned to a pompous PhD who had decided to invent his own computer. Gus was assigned to build it. Full of vacuum tubes, it never worked for very long. But they got it to working and the PhD went to get his boss to see his wonderful invention. When the boss arrived the computer broke and the boss laughed and went back to his office. The PhD was furious at being embarrassed and told Gus he was fired, to go over to personnel and turn in his badge. Gus did, but the personnel rep told Gus he could still report to the playback station, but he must never let the PhD find out he was there. Gus installed a bell that rang when anyone entered the station so he could run and hide behind the racks of electronic equipment." That was why Bill had never seen him.
In the following years, Gus would complete his bachelor's degree in math at Highlands University, his master's in physics at the University of Oklahoma, and his PhD in math at UNM. But he never learned to be pompous.
Gus' good friend Dale Whale recalls another tale. The two were traveling by plane together, Gus sitting next to the window and Dale in the aisle seat. Between them sat a young boy. You have to understand that Gus used to sport a rather wild, long graying beard—not Santa style, but rather like Tolstoy or Rasputin. The boy was terrified. After the plane took off, Gus pulled out a sheet of paper, quickly folded it into a bird with flapping wings, and handed it to the child. Next came a leaping frog. The Origami menagerie continued to grow along with Gus' audience. Soon Dale had to move to make room for the crowd of children eager to watch Gus' magic.
Aside from the fact that Gus is up most nights on his computer bouncing off ideas with friends and colleagues in Europe, you'd never guess he holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Lund, in Sweden, or that he had been named Rothschild Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, or that he received the highest honor our government bestows upon scientists, the EO Lawrence Award, often called the American Nobel prize.
But we know all this, and are thrilled to add our Zimmerman Award to Gus' accolades. Gus, we want to thank you not just for your brain but for how you've used it, for your contributions to research and national and internet security, and for your outlook on life. Your association with UNM gives our alma mater special distinction.