IInterview with PAC World guru Dr. Jim Thorp

PAC World: When and where were you born?
J.T.: I was born In Kansas City Missouri on February 7 1937.

PAC World: Did you grow up at the same place or somewhere else?
J.T.: I grew up in Kansas City, only leaving to go to Cornell. I worked at Black and Veatch at the Kansas City Country Club Plaza summers as an undergraduate, but left Kansas City permanently when I started grad school.

PAC World: What were your parents’ professions and what influence did they have on your decision to become an engineer?
J.T.: My father was a truck driver and my mother was a clerical worker at Sears’ mail order. There were no professionals or engineers in the family


PAC World: What were your interests while in school?
J.T.: I was a good student but otherwise pretty normal. I was also tall early (6’at 13) so I skipped the sixth grade. By high school the guidance counselor was advising me to apply for scholarships. In high school I was pretty active. I was on the tennis team, president of the Honor society, the Engineers club and a literary society. I was voted most likely to succeed.

PAC World: Why did you select engineering and more specifically electrical engineering over other fields?
J.T.: I really didn’t make an informed decision, I was told since I was good at math and physics I should be an engineer.

PAC World: Why did you decide to study at Cornell University?
J.T: I received a number of scholarships but Cornell was the best scholarship. I was one of six Alfred P Sloan scholars a year at Cornell. At that time Sloan supported 24 scholars a year at four universities in the US. He met with the graduating class each year for dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

PAC World: You completed your B. Sc., M. Sc. and Ph. D. at the same university one after the other. Is there any special reason for that?
J.T: Cornell was in the last stages of a five year undergraduate engineering program then. I took a lot of graduate courses in the fifth year which I could use at Cornell but not elsewhere. My roommates who went elsewhere took longer for a PhD than I.

PAC World: Did you play sports while in college, or did you have any other interests outside of engineering?
J.T.: I was on the crew at Cornell for a year and discovered golf at Cornell. The golf season is short in upstate New York but I managed to play a lot of golf in those 50 short summers.

PAC World: Why did you choose an academic career after finishing your education at Cornelll?
J.T. Sputnik was launched during my undergraduate years and engineering programs were forced to modernize. Cornell, in EE alone, hired thirteen Assistant Professors in 1961 and 1962 combined. I was one of seven in 1962. I assumed I would move on but it would be nice to have been on the faculty at Cornell. The department changed so rapidly it was as if I had changed universities. I retired from Cornell 42 years later and moved to Virginia Tech. I spent academic leaves at TRW Systems in Washington, at AEP, and at Cambridge in England.

PAC World: During your forty five years career at Cornell you took many different positions – starting from Graduate Research Assistant and reaching the position of Director of the School of Electrical Engineering. Can you think of which has been the most challenging and which the most rewarding?
J.T.: Yes, I was once introduced by someone listing every position I held at Cornell. Fifty years (counting 8 years as a student and 42 on the faculty) in one place does add up. I suppose I was born to be an academic. I enjoyed almost everything I did at Cornell. I went into teaching after being part of a tutoring program in which an upper class engineering student spent a night a week tutoring freshmen engineers. I was a math tutor. I found one-on-one teaching very rewarding. I got teaching awards for classroom teaching but the one-on-one with graduate students has always been my first love. I regard the professor/ graduate student relationship like an apprenticeship and make a rule, independent of group meetings, to spend at least an hour a week with each of my graduate students. I did not get into academic administration early, but in my mid 50s I decided I owed the department and the university a great deal and I would pay my debts. I was the Assistant Director of the School in charge of the undergraduate program for 3 years and Director for 7. It was a good time to be a department head. Money was plentiful, the alumni were generous, and my job was hiring and deciding how to allocate resources.

PAC World: From the very beginning of your career at Cornell University you also started doing some consulting work for different companies. What do you think about the need for academics to be involved in work with industry?
J.T.: The first Dean I worked with was opposed to young faculty with no industry experience. I had come to Cornell at 17 and was on the faculty at age 25. He insisted I work summers in industry and take sabbatical leaves in industry. I was lucky to get some consulting too. I think he was “right on.” I learned a lot and discovered I enjoyed solving real problems more than homework and that I had some talent in that direction. I think I learned so much I would have done it even if the pay had not been as good as it was. I would recommend the leave I took at AEP to anyone beginning a career in power.

PAC World: When did you develop an interest in power systems protection and what triggered it?
J.T.: In 1975 the senior professor in Control left Cornell to be a department head elsewhere. I was a full professor by then and was made chair of the search committee. I brought in a number of candidates in popular control sub disciplines. The Department head stopped me in the hall one day and said he wanted someone in EE, not aerospace, traffic, pest management, etc. In looking for EE applications of control I landed on power systems. I had had a number of power courses in my pre Sputnik curriculum but had not worked in the area. I had done a PhD in circuit theory and worked in communications and control. After we hired in control of power systems I decided that to be a mentor I needed to know more about the field. I competed to be a faculty intern at AEP. Fred Schweppe and Gerry Wilson both from MIT had preceded me as AEP interns and I was honored to be added to a select list.

PAC World: When, how and why did your friendship with Dr. Arun Phadke start?
J.T.: The assignment mentioned above, was in the computer applications department working with Arun Phadke and indirectly Stan Horowitz on the digital relaying project. As part of the Internship I traveled to various sites including the experimental 1.5 M volt line. I worked with Mohamed Ibrahim on transformer algorithms and Mark Adamiak on experiments on “speed-reach”. I continued to work at AEP a day a week for 6 or 7 more years until AEP moved from southern Manhattan to Columbus OH. I drove down one night, stayed in Parsippany; NJ boarded the PATH train to the World Trade Center, and returned to my car that evening for the drive to Ithaca. It was rewarding and educational experience. Tony Gabrielle, then Vice President for Computer Applications was a great boss. Arun and I continued to collaborate after we had both left AEP, seeing each other at PSRC and other meetings.

PAC World: You have been teaching different courses all over the world. Do you see any differences in the interaction with participants?
J.T.: Sadly interest in things mathematical in the US continues to decline. Increased computer skills have helped fill the gap but I feel math is still important. Foreign audiences are generally better prepared in mathematics. After an introductory lecture in Fourier series a US student asked me if there was “more of this stuff in this course.” Another student told me he had gone into power to get away from this kind of material and now we were dragging it into relaying.

PAC World: Do you approach teaching in the different countries in a different way?
J.T.: I have to try to talk slower. Arun makes me (and Stan) look bad by talking so deliberately. Once in Bilbao we were unexpectedly asked to give each slide in English and then one of the students would repeat it in Spanish. It slowed us down but it was a most successful such experiences in another language. Against Arun’s advice I even told a joke. When the student repeated it in Spanish it was met with hilarious laughter. I asked the student later how he improved my joke and he said “I told them I forgot the punch line.”

PAC World: You authored many books and hundreds of papers on a wide range of subjects. How do you make a decision when and what to write about?
J.T.: A part of a professor’s job is to keep his graduate students supported. One of my Deans said you were not writing enough proposals if your success rate was higher than one third. So many proposals are written. You try to figure out original ways to solve problems your way and you are willing when someone asked you to collaborate in some new interdisciplinary program. I have wound up trying to solve problems in a number of different areas. And students also need to publish so if we find a new approach or make some kind of contribution a paper results.

PAC World: You have 8 patents in several fields. What do you think is the secret to innovation?
J.T.: I do not consider myself an inventor, rather I am driven more by curiosity. I want to know why something is the way it is. If we are successful, sometimes a paper results, and rarely a patent.

PAC World: You have been a member of the IEEE Power Systems Relaying Committee for 30 years, chairing working groups and the System Protection Subcommittee. What do you think is the role of the PSRC in our industry?
J.T.: I learned a great deal at PSRC meetings and feel the PSRC and CIGRE play a vital role in the industry. Especially as an academic it was an important part of my education in protection. I was the second chairman of System Protection Subcommittee (after Philip Winston) and watched it grow from a few working groups to its present size. I formed many friendships working on COMTRADE and the synchrophasor standards. I feel the PSRC survey on adaptive protection started people thinking about what might be possible in that area. The number of papers in your July 2012 issue on adaptive protection is impressive.

PAC World: What do you consider your most important professional achievement?
J.T.: I would have to say it is the 40 plus PhD students I have supervised. They have already accomplished a great deal and I am as proud of their success as you would be with your own children’s successes. Academic generations have such small intervals that I have been in contact with a few of my academic great-great-grandchildren.

PAC World: Of the many awards that you have received is there one that is the most significant to you?
J.T.: Election to the National Academy of Engineering and winning the Franklin Medal are things I never dreamed of when I started. I am struck with the fact that one of the other six Sloan Scholars at Cornell in 1954 also later won the Franklin Medal in Physics.

PAC World: What is the greatest challenge you faced during you professional career?
J.T.: Cornell prepared me for parts of the department head’s responsibilities through a program of interactive theater. There were actors from New York City in residence at Cornell who presented short performances on issues like gender bias in the workplace and then remained in character after the performance for conversation with the audience. It was interesting to see a faculty member forget that he was talking to an actor. I think the actors really enjoyed their work. The program was helpful when I had to deal with conflict situations.
I quite enjoyed my years as Department Head at Cornell.

However, nothing in my background prepared me for the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007. Our department was lucky, a class that was supposed to be in the middle of the fray was cancelled that day and we only lost one student. I have been asked if I felt afraid. I was not afraid I would be harmed but afraid I did not know how to deal with the situation, with bereaved parents, cultural differences in mourning, etc.

PAC World: You have been working for decades on making the protection and control systems adaptive and more intelligent. What do you think now when you hear many people talking about the Smart Grid without even knowing anything about protection and control?
J.T.: A lot of valuable work is being done by the “Smart Grid” community and I don’t begrudge them their success. It is a little off-putting to be told our work is not “Smart Grid” however.

PAC World: When do you think we will see protection systems using synchrophasors?
J.T.: Soon in various adaptive protection applications. For example an Adaptive Security Dependability scheme is currently a DOE demonstration project (June 2012 PAC World). Ultimately I believe synchrophasors will have broad application. The linear-PMU-only state estimator in place at Dominion Virginia Power seems to me to be the future.

PAC World: Do you think that someday in the future we will have protection in “the Cloud”?
J.T: I guess you have to be careful “never to say never" but given the nature of protection, the cyber security issues involved in the cloud have to be addressed to every ones satisfaction. Personally I doubt the cyber security race will ever end. There are very clever people on both sides.

PAC World: You have been teaching and leading research for more than fifty years. What keeps you going?
J.T.: I truly enjoy doing research and working with graduate students. It’s what I do best and I am glad to be free of the other things I had to do as a department head for 12 years (7 at Cornell and 5 at Virginia Tech).

PAC World: How do you balance your active professional life with your family life?
J.T.: I have recently become married after 20 years of being single. I imagine the balance between the two will shift.

PAC World: What do you consider your greatest personal achievement?
J.T.: I doubt it’s an achievement (my genes must be responsible) but when I think of the recognition Fred Schweppe would be receiving today if he were still with us, I am struck with how lucky I am to have lived this long and remained involved in research and teaching. Half the citations to my papers have been since I retired the second time.

PAC World: You were featured in the PAC World magazine talking about your hobby – painting. Your style resembles somehow the style of Jackson Pollock. How did you start painting and why this style?
J.T.: I always had an interest in art but in the article I explained my Jackson Pollock paintings began as a joke. My Assistant Department Head at Cornell was named Pollock so we decided I would paint a fake Jackson Pollock, he would sign it, and we would hang it in the undergraduate office to see who would believe we had a Pollock. After we were exposed everyone wanted one of their own. I continue to paint them and give them away.

PAC World: What else do you like to do when you are not working?
J.T.: I compute fractals from power system problems. It combines my two interests in math and abstract art.

PAC World: You travel a lot all over the world. Do you have a favorite place?
J.T.: At the moment I am quite happy to be home but I have recommended Dubrovnik to friends traveling. We were there on a CIGRE visit years ago and I was sorry to leave.

PAC World: Do you have favorite music?
J.T.: Throughout college I listened to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio on Saturday afternoon. When I was on leave in New York I had season tickets at the Met. I have been back to the Met on visits to New York and to the National Theater Opera in Washington DC. Now I listen to the Opera channel on satellite radio. I am a fan of Italian and French Opera. My opera highlight is that I saw Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland in Lucia de Lamoure on New Year eve 1977.

PAC World: What is your favorite food?
J.T.: At the moment my favorite food is Chinese dumplings of all types. We have had a relationship with North China Electric Power University for some years. We (Arun and I) have spent time there and eaten at an all dumpling restaurant and we have had many Chinese visitors. I have had as many as six Chinese visitors making dumplings in my kitchen at once. I have learned the “three times boil” technique and also make pot stickers.

PAC World: Is there anything you would like to say to the young PAC engineers?
J.T.: I have had the luxury of being able to work on things that interested me, that piqued my interest, and that I wanted to understand better. A student of mine was asked in a job interview whether he would mind doing a boring job. A witness present at the interview later told me that the student was finished at that point. If he said yes the person who asked the question would not vote to hire him and if he said no, the witness would vote not to hire him. I wasn’t present at the interview but I would have advised him the student to say he would try to find something that interested him in the job so it wouldn’t be boring. I think almost everyone is more productive and happy in their job if they enjoy what they are doing.

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