Remembering Jim Flanagan ~ An Acoustics Pioneer

Scientists R. W. Shafer, J.L. Flanagan, and L.R. Rabiner (left to right) listen to synthetic speech produced by their new technique that uses only one fiftieth of the amount of digital information previously needed for computer generated speech. Photo courtesy of Bell Laboratories (November 1970).


James L. Flanagan, a pioneer in the field of acoustics, died August 25, 2015—one day shy of his 90th birthday.
Born in Greenwood, he earned a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from Mississippi State in 1948 before earning a master’s and doctorate from MIT where he began studying the efficient transmission of speech.

He spent 33 years in research at AT&T Bell Laboratories, retiring as director of information principles research. He then spent 15 years at Rutgers University as a center director, professor and vice president for research before retiring to teach as an emeritus professor of electrical engineering at Mississippi State. He was honored with a National Medal of Science in 1996 and an honorary doctorate from Mississippi State in 2012.

His book, “Speech Analysis, Synthesis and Perception,” became the foundation for modern speech and audio processing. However, he is most well known for contributing to the acoustic investigations into the JFK assassination, Apollo 1 tragedy and the Watergate tapes.

A true lover of science and learning, Flanagan wrote of the future of science and science education shortly before his death. The following is an excerpt.

Shoulders of Giants: A Rumination
Science is a living thing. Its sustenance is knowledge—knowledge about our physical world. Despite the prominent interviews in Horgan’s book, “The End of Science,” my belief is that Science has no end—-because, the human intellect compels the unending search for knowledge.

An oft-used phrase, especially by those (typically modest and humble) who have made societal-changing discoveries and contributions, is that we stand on the shoulders of giants. It is true. Each generation of scientists builds upon the remarkable advances of previous generations.

All fields of science are similar in this respect. It would seem there are giants in each generation, whose creation of knowledge is so key as to influence human understanding of, and benefit from, our physical world—-into the never-ending future. A great challenge is to foster giants in every generation, to understand the human drive to seek knowledge, and to find ways to discover and cultivate such instinct. Many institutions of learning, lower and higher, are being drawn to this focus, as witnessed by emphasis on the science of learning, and the remarkable interactive Internet capabilities coming into existence.

More and more, science is being shown to be attractive to young students. Those that commit to this career path will need increasing opportunities for knowledge generation—-and, this, in turn, heightens the importance of strong support for basic research, in both leadership and facilities. Inevitably, governments have to be a mainstay in sustained and generous support. This highlights an obligation of today’s senior scientists to contribute to public understanding of science, and certainly to governmental understanding (where our country has a notable paucity of scientifically knowledgeable political leaders). The latter requires personal interactions that should now begin to transcend the scientists’ well-known aversion to political engagement. It is a responsibility that our present generation of scientists must accept and discharge.