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Shhhh: Award-winning paper all about the quest for quiet

Schulich grad’s thesis on electronic noise one of two UCalgary papers in double WAGS win

Michael Platt

Marlene Coles of ProQuest with Michael Himmelfarb.

It should probably be of no surprise that Michael Himmelfarb is a man of few words – his ideal world is one of silence.

The world in question is the tiny, noise-sensitive space inside our wireless devices, and the soft-spoken Schulich School of Engineering masters grad’s quest for quiet has resulted in a prestigious first prize at the 2017 Western Association of Graduate Schools (WAGS)/ProQuest Distinguished Master’s Thesis Awards.

“I haven’t won a lot of awards, so this is a big deal to me – I wasn’t expecting to win, and I was just honoured to have my thesis nominated in the first place,” says Himmelfarb.

“I was truly surprised at the result.”

Double honour for UCalgary

For the University of Calgary, it was an unprecedented double honour – not only was Himmelfarb’s victory in the STEM category, covering science, math and engineering, a first for the institution, his achievement was matched by anthropology graduate Daniela Navia in the non-STEM category.

For a paper about the search for low-noise performance, Himmelfarb’s thesis is certainly generating a lot of buzz.

That’s in part because of what his research on electrical noise could mean in a society where wireless technology is so dominant – and by rapidly and more accurately measuring the noise created by electronic components, faster, longer-lasting wireless devices with more range are on the horizon.

“The noise is my work, and my focus,” says Himmelfarb, a hands-on engineer who once rebuilt and turbo charged a 16-valve Honda engine, just for the experience.

Born to tinker

Himmelfarb’s natural inclination to tinker and improve may result in better wireless devices for us all.

By devising a more accurate and simple way to measure the noise being generated by electronics, a process detailed in his prize-winning thesis, those working to increase the efficiency of smartphones and the like will have a larger window of signal fidelity.

As Himmelfarb explains, there’s no actually escaping noise in electronics, and it’s that inherent noise, thermal and otherwise, that currently limits wireless technology.

“Electronic noise is present all of the time and it limits how weak a signal you can detect, because the noise drowns it out – data is bottlenecked by noise,” he says.

Pay off for wireless world

Currently, the measurement of noise parameters is time consuming, complicated and expensive, and Himmelfarb’s thesis suggests a method of making faster, more complete measurements that will let designers find the exact optimal silent zone for wireless signals.

“Being able to accurately measure noise parameters will mean faster data transfer, more range and more battery life,” says Himmelfarb.