Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Selling Theory

Thanks to Rocco for bringing us the news from FOCS, particularly a comprehensive summary of the business meeting. I am glad to have watched my White Sox in the World Series live and read a recap of the business meeting than the other way around.

A number of bloggers including Scott, Suresh, Sariel and physicist David Bacon have weighed in on the big panel discussion on how to generate interest in theoretical computer science. There was a big push for our community to publish in Science and Nature. I have seen more than a couple rather mediocre CS papers in Science. We need more than to just send our papers to these journals, we need members of our community on the editorial board.

The most interesting comments came from science writer Sara Robinson.

There is a perception among science editors that TCS is not what people want to read about: they want stories about health, things that cost a lot of taxpayer dollars, etc.
The New York Times, which Sara Robinson has written for in the past, used to give good coverage to research in theoretical computer science. But their Tuesday section Science Times has moved over the last couple of years from a general covering of science to a focus on medicine, environment and astronomy. Not just computer science but physics and chemistry get far less coverage than they once did.

What scares me most is what I see from incoming undergraduates. Far more high school students use computers now than say ten years ago but far fewer of them know how to program. Computer science is a victim of its own success, by making computers powerful, easy to use and well-connected, we have turned computers into a commodity like cars with the mystique of computation and complexity lost on the users.


  1. Back when Ron Graham was at AT&T, he had contacts with many reporters, including Gina Kolata at NYT (or so I was told). this helped 'grease the path' for many news reports in TCS. of course this all stopped once he left.

  2. I guess we all know what tomorrow's post is going to be about:)


  3. Has anybody here published in such journals? From my experience, popular-science journals like these often don't accept latex, which might be a reason why math/CS people don't submit to these journals.

    Anyway, I agree with Lance that more people these days know how to use computers, but fewer know how to program. Hence, I guess before we try selling theory, we have to first sell computer science (broadly construed), especially the notion of "efficient" algorithms and NP-completeness. I think this shouldn't be hard because algorithms are so pervasive in our lives. After that, it should be a breeze to sell theory.

    A success in this department will also make it easier for theory graduate students to get scholarships, etc. :-)

  4. TCS's big thing is crypto and security. It should be easy to sell developments in those fields to the general public.

    A lack of coverage could more be the result that there are less computer scientists and more astronomers. Had we equal number of researchers maybe we'd see more interesting results worth shouting to the world.

  5. Slightly off-topic, but if you need to convert text from LaTeX (like twidjaja's concern) then you can use latex2html and then copy and paste from your web browser to MSWord or Openoffice - you will not avoid having to tweak the format and redo the equations, but then again in a popular article you should not have had equations in the first place :-)

  6. Recently MD5/SHA1
    were broken
    by a female scientist
    from an unfriendly (to US)
    country. That was an ideal story to sell theory. People can discuss efficiency, one-wayness, internet
    even gender and politics in science. But apparently
    the big guys in TCS
    donot appreciate this.

  7. I have to disagree with the statement that "TCS is crypto and security." I agree that these are the topics that are best known by the general public. I might even concur that they are the "sexiest" topics to sell to general audiences today.

    However, there are many very deep. important and beautiful insights in TCS, and we might be able to explain them to laypeople.

    Let me start with one of the most esoteric--PCP Theory. There is a strong intuition that "proofs" MUST have the property that you have to check every line of them--and this is certainly true of ordinary proofs (as in the Geometry proofs most high school graduates suffered through.) There was even a huge amount of verbiage written about how "Math based" computations, which are "naturally brittle" would in the future be subsumed by "human-like" algorithms, that are "flexible."
    The idea that we can take two very short random samples of a proof, and after some computation be reasonably certain whether it is true is amazing, and -- like relativity and quantum mechanics -- should change the nature of our intuitions.

    A second major impact has been Google. The clever ranking algorithm is TCS based. The implications of efficient search of enormous data are huge. One could make the argument that the leap in access to information is comparable to the print revolution. Again, the notion that one needs to understand what questions are about in order to answer them even moderately well, is disproved by an artifact, changing our intuitions.

    Breaking a cryptosystem may have short-term implications, but in 100 years noone will know what MD5 was. In contrast, ideas about the nature of proof, and the nature of information will continue to be a central part of our intellectual heritage, and it seems that we managed to obtain important new insights into these fundamental questions.

  8. It's great to see all the discussion. One of the instructions I gave to the panelists when we were planning this was that they should feel free to interpret "the public" as they like: the general public, smart high-school students, undergrads, any depressed grad students.... My own feeling is that TCS is in an excellent position to attract smart high-school students, since the foundations of our area have a lot of great ideas and basic problems that don't require a whole lot of background to appreciate. Secret-sharing, the firing-squad problem, etc -- I remember missing my bus-stop as a kid thinking about how to divide a cake fairly among 3 people. But most kids don't have family members giving them these kinds of problems to think about :-). I think what we need in the end is for TCS people to write general-audience books about TCS.


  9. May be what we need is a little controversy. Get someone to start an "Invention Institute", where people get paid to study how the Church-Turing thesis is blasphemous and contradicts various relegious texts. Put some people on some boards of education who would protest the teaching of small-world graph models unless there is also a lecture or two on Intelligently designed social networks. That way, we're bound to get some press.