TITLE: Sharing the Thrill AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 22, 2005 10:25 AM DESC: We in computing must communicate the thrill of computer science to the public at large, in order for them to appreciate the disipline -- which is in part our responsibility as scientists, but also essential to securing the future growth of our discipline. ----- BODY: The August 2005 issue of Communications of the ACM will contain an opinion piece entitled "The Thrill Is Gone?" (pdf) by Sanjeev Arora and Bernard Chazelle, who are computer scientists at Princeton University. This article suggests that we in computing have done ourselves and the world a disservice in failing to communicate effectively the thrill of computer science -- not technology -- to the general public. On their view, this failure probably plays a role in our declining undergraduate enrollments, declining research funding, and a general lack of appreciation for importance of computer science by the public. People, especially young people, should be excited by computing, but instead they are nonplussed. As I read Arora and Chazelle's piece, I recalled some of the recent themes in my writing here, including the irony that this is the most exciting time to study CS ever, the love of computing planted by Gödel, Escher, Bach, and the need for a CS administrator to be a teacher to a broader audience. But this article makes a larger point. Arora and Chazelle do a very nice job of pointing out that the story of how computer science has shaped the technologies we all use can and should be told to the outside world. Fundamental ideas such as P-versus-NP, cryptography, and quantum computing are accessible to folks with a high school education or less when described in a way that strips away unnecessary complexity. The effect of computing on other disciplines such as physics, biology, and economics relies more on computer science ideas than on advanced engineering of hardware, but most people have no clue. How could they? We've never told them. Reading this piece now has heightened my resolve to do something this fall that I've been saying I would do for at least two years: put together a short course on computing for the middle-school students at my daughters' school. I am thinking of using the Computer Science Unplugged materials created by a group of New Zealand computer scientists who evidently believe what I am preaching here -- but who have done me one better in writing instructional material that is accessible to elementary school students. Another step I will take this fall is to look for opportunities to write an op-ed piece or two for the local paper. A few weeks back, our paper ran this story on software bugs in automobiles. At the time, I thought that this was a great opportunity for someone in my department to write a piece that might help the paper's readers better understand the issues involved, and maybe even garner a little good publicity for our academic programs. But I was busy, so... I considered asking a colleague to write the piece instead, but shied away. From now on, though, I plan to make the time or make the request. It's has always been a responsibility of my academic position, but now perhaps moreso. Regular readers of this blog can probably guess my favorite line from the Arora and Chazelle piece. It's a theme that appears here often, often with a link back to Alan Kay:
Computer science is a new way of thinking.
But I also like the final line of the article, enough to quote it here:
We think it is high time that the computer science community should reveal to the public our best kept secret: our work is exciting science--and indispensable to the nation.
(Thanks to Suresh and Ernie for their pointers to the pre-release of this article. Both of these guys are theoretical CS bloggers whom I enjoy reading.) -----