The Gospel of Theoretical Computer Science

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.

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13 Responses to The Gospel of Theoretical Computer Science

  1. Bill Dougherty says:

    Dave, why do you think they are concerned with exciting general interest in Computer Science?

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  2. Perry Rice says:

    You are right about the popular physics programs/books “lying” a bit or a lot, Heck I tell my students that we lie to them a little less every year. For example at some point we quit talking about isolated quantum systems and go to open ones that require density matrices; or we leave Schroedinger and go to relativistic quantum mechanics. But ya gotta start somewhere.

    Also, physics has a great tie-in to “x-files” type stuff, time travel and the like. Even if folks don’t understand the details, they are likely to think “that stuff is cool”. Folks are much more likely to get excited about teleportation than complexity classes! Not saying thats right, but that the sci-fi angle helps promote physics.

    Is the worry about general interest in terms of keeping numbers up in grad programs? Getting a bigger share of the grant pie? All of the above??

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  3. Suresh says:

    The worry about general interest in CS is “all of the above”, both to reverse declining trends in grad enrollment, and to get a less-rapidly decreasing share of the funding pie :).

    Btw Dave, the phenomenon you ascribe to Feynman’s talks happens actually in many good talks. It’s almost a sign of a good talk :)

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  4. Dave Bacon says:

    Part of it is that the funding for theory is in not in good shape. Part of it is attracting the best students to the field. Part of it is just that, indeed this theory stuff is cool and they are a bit pieved that no one knows what it is! Does this last point really matter? For actually doing research, no. But for your ego, yes.

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  5. Suresh says:

    But does it really not matter whether people know what we do ? if you want to get any kind of funding, of course it does. And especially if theoryCS is viewed as something that doesn’t fit in the frame of “CS = programming” it is even more important.

    This is again a place where physics has the lead: no one will question that theoretical physics is the foundational side of physics, but there are many that will question that theoretical computer science has ANYTHING to do with computer science. Sad, but true.

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  6. R.R.Tucci says:

    I didn’t want to write this, because I don’t want to sound sanctimonious, but I disagree so vehemently with this “CS should publish in Nature” stratagem, that I feel obligated to answer. I think that publishing in Nature magazine hurts much more than it helps Physics, and it would do the same for CS.

    Nature magazine devotes tremendous energy to marketing the research articles that appear in its pages. They treat the release day of many a research paper they publish as a premiere news event, the day a revolutionary new discovery or product was unveiled, complete with press releases for newspaper and other media journalists. This immediately gives the imprimatur of revolutionary to a paper whose importance is still to be determined. It over-magnifies the importance of those papers that were published in Nature magazine compared with those that weren’t, even when those that weren’t ultimately prove to be much more important. My opinion is that people who choose to publish in Nature magazine rather than in a more low key research journal (or just in http://www.arXiv.org) are usually publicity seekers trying to get under the limelight without having earned it. In a healthy scientific environment, the limelight should shine on a research paper only a long time after its release date, if the paper proves itself by serving as the starting point for many other subsequent papers.

    So if publishing in Nature magazine is not the answer, what is? I would try to promote better technical journalism (by setting up scholarships, and congresses for it). I would try to get science (fiction & non-fiction) writers interested in my field (by organizing workshops where science writers and researchers can meet). I would ask researchers to write more introductory papers and give more colloquium-type talks. (And I would try to increase the pace and usefulness of my results. No better sales pitch than successfull results.)

    By the way, being disingenuous (by oversimplifying, or leaving out important information, or exaggerating) is never a good policy. Feynman was very much against it .

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  7. Suresh says:

    p.s dave, i have a new post up that riffs off some of the comments you make.

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  8. Perry Rice says:

    The new TV show Numbers has some math in it, some is nonsense, but they have done a better job this year. But it does portray mathematicians and theoretical physicists as whacky, extremely geeky folks.

    I agree with Tucci that more introductory/tutorial type things could help. Particularly if they are presented to physics/engineering type audiences, or science day things for high school students.

    I’m a physicist, so please leave us a few…..

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  9. BVM says:

    Is this why you never return calls?

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  10. Dave Bacon says:

    Tucci, I have had some similar thoughts about Nature/Science. But think about the situation in computer science. There is absolutely NO recognition of its intrinsic importance outside of the researchers in the field. And if the price of publication in Nature is that some of the papers are not worthy of the recognition but they basic ideas get spread to the general public, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Of course I distinguish Science with a big S, which I think is what your argument against publishing in Nature/Science is about, and science with a small s, which is about spreading your results/publicizing what you’ve done. Certainly the first matters for posterity and is less dependent on where you publish. But the second matters for those who are caught in the rat trap of tenure track positions, but more importantly because spreading science into the public sphere, even if it is not Science with a big S, is an important public service.

    I also think the number of papers which are not of high quality in Nature/Science IS less than in other journals. There are certainly a subset which are just seeking publicity, but I disagree that the quality of Nature articles is less than in other journals. I guess I’m thinking mostly about experimental papers here, not theory. So maybe I agree with you more when it comes to theory papers in Nature/Science.

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  11. If you really want the general public to understand your ideas, just write a movie script. Understand it will be distorted, but it seems you do not have a problem with that as it will serve the greater good of CS theory.

    Also, publish some works on your ideas. The human mind is limitless in its appitite…no matter where you start.

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  12. amit says:

    hey, i went through your pages, found very inspiring. even i have a quality research paper. can u suggest me, how can i reach “nature” magazine to have my paper published?

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  13. Avigdor Spasser says:

    Hi, just saw ur page today. Really nice. I think i agree with what suresh said in that programming and theoretical computer science seem to be at the two ends of the spectrum

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