I’m in Pittsburgh this weekend for FOCS 2005. This is the first FOCS I’ve attended.
This evening there was a panel discussion at the business meeting (free beer!) on “Exciting the public about (theoretical) Computer Science.” (Update: for a detailed description of the business meeting see Rocco Servedio’s guest post at Lance Fortnow’s blog and for a real computer scientist’s comments see here and for a nice collection comments head over to Geomblog. For a fare and balanced counter, see Pit of Bable) It was very interested to hear about the severity of the public image crisis the field of theoretical computer science currently finds itself facing. It is true that even within the broader computer science community, theory is oftentimes seen as not very important. But beyond this, the public’s perception of the theory of computation is very limited and a lot of the panel discussion focused on how to fix this. I mean, if I ask random people if they know anything in theoretical computer science, what are the chances that they will know anything? At best you might be very lucky and meet someone who has heard of the P versus NP question. On the other hand, mention physics to people, and they immediately think nuclear bombs, black holes, perhaps lasers and string theory, quantum mechanics, and atoms with electrons zipping around a nucleus (well I’m not saying any of these things are correct physics 😉 ) So how can theoretical computer science convey the excitement of the field to the general public?
Concrete suggestions like “publish in Science and Nature” and “get IEEE and ACM to hire someone to do PR” were offered up, and probably deserve serious consideration. It was interesting, to me, originally(?) a physicist, to hear how physics and astronomy were held up as prime examples of doing a good job conveying to the public the excitement of their research. It is true that physics and astronomy do a good job of conveying the excitement of the field, and there are various reasons for this.
But I’d like to focus on why theoretical physics has done a good job at exciting the public. Why? Because this is much closer to the theory of computation. Because lets face it: CS theory doesn’t have things dug up from the ground (dinosaurs, early primates, archeology), nor beautiful pictures of alien environments (planetary science, all of astronomy). And theoretical physics, like CS theory is hard. I mean really hard. And also, I would claim, theoretical physicis and CS theory share a very fundamental similarity in that they are both essentially about advanced creative problem solving.
So let’s look at theoretical physics. How is the excitement of theoretical physics conveyed? Well, the first things that probably pops into most peoples minds that is related to theoretical physics are Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” or maybe Brian Green’s “The Elegant Universe.” Or maybe the recent NOVA program on “E=mc^2.” Now clearly neither of these books or the TV show is explaining to the public the “real” story of the theoretical physics. But what they do a good job of is convincing the audience that they, the audience, actually understand what is going on. As was mentioned on the panel tonight, people will hear about gravitons and think that they actually understand the physics of gravitons. But really, of course they don’t. Do they even know why exchange of particles can give rise to attractive forces or the connection of whether these forces are attractive or repulsive to the spin of the exchanged particle. I seriously doubt it. Yet, the authors of these books and TV shows have successfully given the audience the feeling that they do understand the field.
There are stories I have been told about Richard Feynman (OK, yeah, I just can’t resist another Feynman story) which said that when you went to one of his lectures, while you were listening to the lecture you would think “Yeah! This is great! Everything makes total sense now!” But when you left the lecture and tried to recall the reasoning and what Feynman was teaching, you couldn’t reproduce the results. I maintain that what was happening here is the same thing which good popular expositions on theoretical physics do: they convince the reader that they understand what is going on even though they most certainly do not. What is funny about the Feynman stories, of course, is that these are real physicists who themselves probably should understand the subject, and yet Feynman was able to convince them they understood what was going on, even though they really didn’t. Kind of scary.
So what lesson do I draw for this for the theory of CS? Well they need a Richard Feynman and a Stephen Hawking! But seriously, they need to attempt to convey their results in a way which, while not toally faithful to the science, gives the reader a reason to believe that they understand what is going on. This, of course, is much hard to do as a computer scientist than as a theoretical physicist because in the former rigor is held in higher esteme than in physics where hand-wavy arguments hold a much greater standing. But certainly even theoretical physicists (except the best) have to distort their understandings to meet the general public. So my advice to the theoretical computer science community is to let the rigor go but convey the spirit in a way that convince the public they understand what is going on.
Now one might argue that this is dishonest. And to the brighter readers it certainly is. But remember, it’s not the bright readers which are the main concern: they don’t consitute the public (if they did I wouldn’t be writing this post nor would FOCS be having this panel discussion. Nor would their be trials about whether intelligent design should be taught in science courses at the beginning of the twenty first century.)
Another interesting perspective coming from physics is that theoretical physics has conveyed to the public that it is really pursuing something fundamental. The two big fundamentals are “learning the laws of nature” and “understanding the origin of our universe.” CS theory hasn’t, in my opinion, exploited the fact that it is studying a fundamental question: the fundamental limits of computation. This fundamental research direction, to me, is as deep as understanding what the laws of nature are (and if you catch my on some days I might even say that one is deeper than the other. Which is deeper depends on the day. And perhaps the last time I’ve had a conversation with Scott Aaronson.) Certainly this is one of the reasons people get interested in the theory of computer science. I myself have very fond memories of reading “The Turing Omnibus” which introduced me at an early age to ideas of P versus NP, error correcting codes, the von Neuman architecture, the theory of computablity, etc. This excitement is as exciting as thinking about string theory, or supersymmetry, or solutions to Einstein’s equations. And it certainly, is a fundamental question, about our universe (I began my thesis at Berkeley with the sentence “Our generous universe comes equiped with the ability to compute.” Heh. Pretty cheesy, no?)
I think I could go on about this subject ad nauseum. So I’ll stop. And, of course, I’m more of an outsider than an insider here. This is my first FOCS. On the other hand, when one of the panelists asked how many had publised in Science or Nature, I was one of about four who got to raise their hand. And the paper even had some computer science (about universal quantum computers) in it! And remember, if you publish in Nature or Science, there is the possibility of being sucked into their press cabul and there will be articles about your work appearing simultaneously around the world’s newspapers.