Friday, February 17, 2006

Chazelle throws down the gauntlet

..mathematics produces the equivalent of one-liners – equations that are pithy, insightful, brilliant. Computer science is more like a novel by Tolstoy: it is messy and infuriatingly complex. But that is exactly what makes it unique and appealing -- computer algorithms are infinitely more capable of capturing nuances of complex reality in a way that pure mathematics cannot.
Read the whole interview. I don't know about Einsteins of computer science: arguably we've already seen fundamental tectonic shifts in the way we think about theoryCS. But it is telling that some of the most bedrock developments in algorithms came way before computers were fashionable; the whole of the 70s was a golden era for the study of basic algorithms. It makes this quote seem oh-so-true, and yet tragic, in that we are still trying to make an argument that we've lived and breathed for so many years.
Theoretical computer science would exist even if there were no computers.
The more I think about this line, the more I appreciate its deceptive subversiveness. In one line, it turns on its head most of the received understanding about the nature of computer science and the nature of algorithms. How indeed could theoretical computer science exist without computers ? This statement can only make sense once you realize that that the theory of computation is not about computers, but is about the process of computing, about deduction and formal reasoning, and is fundamentally about efficiencies; how quickly, how succintly, how accurately ?

The confluence of computer science and programming has brought our field much riches and much attention, and for that we should be grateful. But it is time for our field to take its rightful place as the language of quantitive and effective science, as Bernard rightly puts it.

(HT: Neighbourhood of Infinity)

Update: Bernard kindly points me to an essay that expands upon the things he says in the interview. It's a freewheeling ride that smacks of crazy guitar riffs and strange rhythms. Don't believe me ? Read it for yourself. Here's a sampler:
Moore's Law has ruled the roost for the last 40 years. All the oohs and aahs you hear about the digital revolution are nothing but the squeals humans emit when tickled pink by Moore's Law. From the nice (medical imaging, e-commerce, whole-genome sequencing) to the vital (Xbox, IM, iPod), its rule has been a veritable ticklefest. Moore's Law has been the sizzling cauldron in which savvy cooks have whipped up a dazzling variety of tasty dishes. Without it, the Information Superhighway would be a back alley to Snoozeville; the coolest thing about a computer would still be the blinking lights.
Update II: Lance and Ernie weigh in as well.

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