Sunday, November 17, 2019

Fields used to be closer together than they are now. Good? Bad?

There was a retired software Eng professor that I had heard two very non-controversial rumors about:

1) He got his PhD in Numerical Analysis

2) He got his PhD in Compiler Optimization.

So I asked him which was true.

The answer: Both! In those days you had to optimize your code to get your NA code to run fast enough.

We cannot imagine that anymore. Or at least I cannot.

Over time the fields of computer science advance more so its hard to be  master of more than one field.  But its not that simple: there has been work recently applying Machine Learning to... well
everything really. Even so, I think the trend is more towards separation. Or perhaps it oscillates.

I am NOT going to be the grumpy old man (Google once thought I was 70, see here) who says things were better in my day when the fields were closer together. But I will ask the question:

1) Are people more specialized new? While I think yes since each field has gotten more complicated and harder to master. There are exceptions: Complexity theory uses much more sophisticated mathematics then when I was a grad student (1980-1985), and of course Quantum Computing has lead to more comp sci majors knowing physics.

2) Is it good for the field that people are specialized? I am supposed to say that it is terrible and that great advances are made when people are interdiscplinary. But there are many more small advances that are made by someone who has a mastery of one (or two) fields.

3) The PhD Process and the Tenure Process encourage specialization. This I think IS bad since there are different modes of research that should all be respected.'


  1. No, we are not specialized more. It is just that Ph.D. degree has devalued to the utmost, and the system started to hire idiots to fill professorship positions, and teachers started to spend too much time on leftist political agenda rather than on doing actual research. If you look at literally all scientists who made huge breakthroughs, starting from Newton and ending with Donald Knuth and Han Abelson, all of them have done lots of research in a broad variety (pun intended) of fields. Sussman has papers in compiler theory, algebraic geometry and classical mechanics, because if you cannot be proficient in at least three fields, your work is no more than waste of paper, just because you have not a slightest idea how your work (if at all) may be applied.

  2. I hesitate to comment given the trolling garbage from the previous comment...

    but I think that your claim about increased specialization is quite off base. The time-line you are talking about is basically two generations. (For perspective, the web is roughly a quarter century old, one generation.) Compared to today, Computer Science (and not just TCS) was very narrowly focused. The change is not one of specialization, but rather of what other fields are closely related to Computer Science. In the 1960s, numerical analysis was considered one the core disciplines and integral to the field (no pun intended), but the notion has changed from narrow aspects of numerical simulations to the much broader notion of data science. These days, one would just as easily see a PhD thesis on domain-specific programming languages appropriate for data science or for computational biology. Many areas of Computer Science, not just TCS, have broadened connections to other fields and methodologies. A generation ago one could get by with much LESS breadth than is required to be a top researcher these days! I notice this at very visceral level in TCS, but the same is true in other areas of CS also.

  3. Sure, we are more specialised, but it's hardly new, and has been happening for centuries.
    A top level researcher in my area would have been called a "philosopher" a few centuries ago, then more recently, a scientist (or some equivalent), then later a mathematician, then an algebraist, then a group theorist, etc.
    As our common body of knowledge grows, one has to specialise more to be able to get "on top" of what is known in a particular area, it's almost a given.

    Of course there are some downsides, but to my mind, it is basically unavoidable.