Thursday, September 26, 2013

Dealing with Death

Mary Jean Harrold, a professor of software engineering at Georgia Tech, passed away last week. Mary Jean was 67 and still quite active before the cancer struck.

Computer science is still a relatively young field and most of even the early computer scientists remain quite alive. So a death in the field, particularly a colleague, makes a mark because it typically is happening at a young age. I've lost five co-authors (Avner Magen, Steve Mahaney, Andrej Muchnik, Nick Reingold, Carl Smith) all well before their time. Each death is a stark reminder of what's important in life, what does the next theorem mean when life seems so short?

We're nearing a time in computer science that many of our ranks will die after living to a ripe old age. Those remembrances will be of a life well lived. But there will always be lives cut short. The best we can do is remember them and move on and continue to build on the research tradition they left behind.


  1. I used to tell my students:

    Everything you learn in ugrad math courses is by people who are dead.

    Everything you learn in ugrad comp sci courses is by people who are alive.

    This first statement is still mostly true (exception- if crypto is taught in a math dept).
    The second one is getting less true as time goes on.

  2. Lance Fortnow affirms "The best we [researchers] can do is remember them [our early-fallen colleagues] and move on and continue to build on the research tradition they left behind."
    Lance's affirmation is terrific, and it is natural to consider whether the 21st century's various STEM advances are providing new concrete opportunities to realize it.

    History's tally of notable physician-mathematicians is not long:

    •  Thābit ibn Qurrah (826 – 901)
    •  Simon Bredon (c. 1300 – 1372)
    •  Girolamo Cardano (1501 – 1576)
    •  Robert Recorde (ca. 1512 – 1558)
    •  Hermann von Helmholtz (1821 – 1894)

    Lamentably, in the 20th-21st century so far, there have been (apparently) no notable physician-mathematicians at all. Yikes! Counterexamples would be *VERY* welcome, needless to say.

    Moreover, please let me venture (what for me is not frequent) an opinion that is entirely my own (to the best of my knowledge):

    Prediction  The latter decades of the 21st century will witness a flowering of three successive generations of physician-mathematicians.

    As evidence for the plausibility of this assertion, we can reflect that two great 20th century geniuses of computer science, Alan Turing and John von Neumann, both were working upon biology-inspired questions at the untimely time of their deaths. Perhaps if they had lived, the flowering of the 21st century's Golden Age of mathematician-physicians would already have begun.

    What open questions will the coming generation of mathematical physicians address? There is no better reference (known to me) that Misha Gromov's Bull. AMS survey "Crystals, proteins, stability and isoperimetry" (2011), which is recommended to all aspiring young mathematical physicians.

    Needless to say, this flowering will demand the very highest level of mathematical talent in combination with the most rigorous levels of physician commitment. Not for nothing did Alfred Rényi say: "Other mathematicians prove what they can, von Neumann what he wants." This concisely conveys the level of skill and commitment that will be required of the 21st century's mathematical physicians. And very fortunately for young 21st century researchers, the mathematicians of the 20th century have already provided the requisite strong-and-natural foundations upon which to build this new 21st century STEM discipline.

    Conclusion  If we are lucky, a new generation of 21st century PhD/MD mathematical physicians (to reverse the ordering of the 20th century MD/PhD degree, and to evolve "mathematical physicist" into "mathematical physician") will embrace the wonderful vistas of 21st century mathematics, to the immense benefit of 21st century medicine.

    In which event, one benefit among many, that we will all share, will be fewer untimely losses of our valued colleagues and family members

    1. The Question Asked:  Mathematical physicists are commonplace; do mathematical physicians similarly exist?

      A keyword search for MacTutor/"physician*" yields fifty-nine biographies, most of which refer to mathematicians whose parents, children, or colleagues practiced medicine.

      The remaining set of MacTutor mathematicians who received formal training in medicine and/or practiced as physicians and numbers spans 1200 years yet numbers only fifteen:

      • Hunayn ibn Ishaq (808-873)
      • Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037)
      • Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543)
      • Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576)
      • Frederico Commandino (1506-1575)
      • Regnier Gemma Frisius (1506-1555)
      • Thomas Fincke (1561-1656)
      • Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
      • Simon Mayr (1573-1624)
      • Erasmus Bartholin (1625-1698)
      • John Arbuthnot (1667-1735)
      • Thomas Young (1773-1829)
      • Adolphe-Louis Jacques Bertillon (1851-1922)
      • Mór Réthy (1846-1925)
      • Anderson Gray McKendrick (1876-1943)

      Needless to say, this list is possibly incomplete.

      Summary  The incidence of MacTutor-level mathematical physicians is strikingly low: only one-or-two are alive in any given century. So much so, that (remarkably, even incredibly) *no* MacTutor-prominent mathematical physicians are alive in the present era.

      Two [contradictory] lessons-learned  (A) mathematical physicians are so remarkably rare that no young researchers should aspire to become one; and (B) the present supply of mathematical physicians is so remarkably sparse, and the 21st century opportunities so vast, that every young researcher should consider becoming one.

      Needless to say, a separate list could be compiled of mathematicians who came to medical research through personal and/or familial experience of "lives cut short"; MacTutor-grade mathematicians like Israel Moiseevich Gelfand and Lucien Marie Le Cam (and dozens more) appear upon on that sober list.

  3. The best we can do is to demand 1% of USA budget on research for immortality technologies described in part by Aubrey de Grey and also including 3D-bioprinting of organs and their growing. We can live forever.