Remembering Ludvik Finkelstein

Rather belated, this posting marks the death in August this year of Ludwik Finkelstein, formerly Dean of Engineering at City University London.

Finkelstein was born in Lvov in Poland (now Lviv in the Ukraine) in 1929, and seemed destined for a career in his family’s iron and steel business. Like so many from that part of the world, his life was disrupted by the 1939-45 conflict. After an initial banishment by the Soviets to Siberia, and then a period in the Middle East where his father was an officer in the Polish Army Corps, the young Finkelstein found himself a refugee in Britain in 1946. He worked in the nascent electronics industry, became a mining engineer, and then a lecturer in what was then the Northampton College of Advanced Technology in London. He was one of those who led the transformation of this college into City University, becoming its first Dean of the School of Engineering, and later Pro-Vice Chancellor.

I did not know Finkelstein well, although our time at the university overlapped by three years. I feel an obvious respect for one who helped establish the institution where I have worked for over twenty years. And, as someone who did not greatly enjoy my schooldays, I cannot but feel warmly towards Finkelstein, whose sole pre-degree formal education apparently amounted to six weeks of secondary schooling at the Trans-Siberian Railway School. But more fundamentally. I think his intellectual approach and legacy has a lot to say to the information sciences. He became best known as a measurement and control engineer, and head of a department of systems science, focusing on the idea that measuring instruments were, in effect, machines for processing information. This provides an interesting extension of information science principles into an area not always associated with them. But more fundamentally, he believed in what he wrote of as “the vision of the Colleges of Advanced Technology to bridge the gap between science and practice”; to show how academic research and theoretical study is always of the highest value to a professional discipline. This is a lesson which, it seems, the information sciences are always having to relearn.

A fuller biography of Finkelstein, with a link to a short autobiographical sketch, can be found on the City University site.

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