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Jim Schatz: From Falling in Love with Calculus to Cracking Codes

Jim SchatzJim Schatz confesses that he was not a model pupil at Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Poughkeepsie, New York, but he did have a favorite subject. “Old-fashioned geometry—the way it was taught back then—appealed to me. There were clear statements of axioms, statements of theorems, and very careful proofs. It was my first encounter with real math.”

Still, when he learned he would have to take calculus his senior year, he did everything he could to get out of it. His resistance proved futile; but, as he soon learned, calculus was not. “I absolutely fell in love with it,” says Schatz, the head of the Research and Exploratory Development Department. “I got 100 percent on every test; I totally devoured the calculus textbook.”

Thus began Schatz’s decades-long love affair (“an addiction, really,” he admits) with math. Schatz’s devotion to and natural aptitude for the subject have been rewarded over and over again by happenstance and a series of charmed opportunities that included three decades at the National Security Agency (NSA), 11 years of which he spent as chief of the agency’s Mathematics Research Group.

After graduating from high school in the early 1970s, Schatz’s options for college were limited. With five kids in the family, money was tight. “Not that it would have mattered, because I didn’t have the grades to get into Harvard,” he says. “I was barely able to get into one of the state colleges.” He was admitted to SUNY College at Cortland, a school known back then for its physical education program.

“It had a really small math department, and there were two teachers who were relatively new and they really wanted to make a difference and teach students,” Schatz says. They quickly figured out that they had something special with Schatz, and over the next four years he received their undivided attention. “They would work with me for hours, just me alone, completely feeding my addiction,” he says. “By the end of my first semester, I was doing first-year graduate-level analysis.”

After SUNY-Cortland, he went on to earn a master’s in computer science and a doctorate in math from Syracuse. “I graduated in 1979, and you couldn’t buy a teaching job,” Schatz says. “It was post-Vietnam, and every person on Earth who could get into academia held on to those positions. But I was more interested in non-academic kinds of things.” He halfheartedly put in an application with IBM, where his father had worked for years. “They didn’t even answer my letter,” he says.

But once again, serendipity intervened. Schatz’s doctoral dissertation was on the theory of error-correcting codes, which are algorithms for expressing a sequence of numbers so that any errors that are introduced can be detected and corrected based on the remaining numbers. It turns out that the theory he was studying was applicable to the math required to break codes, he says. This is when NSA entered the picture.

On the advice of a former classmate-turned-NSA recruiter, Schatz submitted an application. The agency subjected him to “several days of fun things that only they can do—lie detector tests, strange math tests, interviews. I loved it,” Schatz says. A few weeks later, he had the job: helping the NSA break encryption systems that other countries used to protect their secrets.

“I had absolutely the right kind of knowledge,” he says. “All I knew and learned from my Ph.D. was exactly the bread and butter of what they did every day.” Schatz spent 15 years as a code breaker at NSA and went on to serve an additional 15 years as chief of the Mathematics Research Group, deputy director of research, and director of the Research Directorate, before retiring in 2009 and joining APL.

By any measure, his is a storied career, adorned with scores of professional awards. Yet he insists that he’s not one of “the” great mathematicians. “Math is not a competitive sport,” he says. “There is plenty of math to do out there, and you can have a math life that you love, and it doesn’t matter that you are better or worse than somebody else.”

However, he adds, it does require “incredible” drive and discipline. “I don’t know what it’s like for the superstar ‘wunderkinds,’ but for nine years I studied math seven days a week, 12 hours a day. I loved it, but it’s also what was required.”

He did manage to find time to date and marry Kathryn, with whom he will soon celebrate 40 years of marriage, and he has helped to raise two daughters. He runs five days a week and has done so for decades. A couple of years ago, he took up the trumpet (“I was fascinated by how you get all those sounds out of these three keys”) and practiced daily for a year, but he’s had to give that up for the time being because of job demands.

But at the end of every day, without fail, he goes home, and he works on his math.