TITLE: iPods and Big Ideas AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 24, 2006 2:30 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Last summer I blogged on a CACM article called "The Thrill Is Gone?", by Sanjeev Arora and Bernard Chazelle, which suggested 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." Apparently, Chazelle is carrying the flag for effective communication into battle by trying to spread the word beyond traditional CS audiences. The theoryCS guys -- Suresh, Lance, and Ernie among them -- have all commented on his latest public works: an interview he gave prior to giving a talk called "Why Computer Science Theory Matters?" at the recent AAAS annual meeting, the talk itself, and a nice little article to appear in an upcoming issue of Math Horizons. Be sure to read the Horizons piece; the buzz is well-deserved. Chazelle ties to convince his audience that computing is the nexus of three Big Ideas: ... and the source of two new, exceedingly powerful ideas that cement the importance of computing to the residents of the 21st century: tractability and algorithm. Chazelle has a nice way of explaining tractability to a non-technical audience, in terms of the time it takes to answer questions. We have identified classes of questions characterized by their "time signatures", or more generally, their consumption of any resource we care about. This is a Big Idea, too:
Just as modern physics shattered the platonic view of a reality amenable to noninvasive observation, tractability clobbers classical notions of knowledge, trust, persuasion, and belief. No less.
Chazelle's examples, including e-commerce and nuclear non-proliferation policy, are accessible to any educated person. The algorithm is the "human side" of the program, an abstract description of a process. The whole world is defined by processes, which means that in the largest sense computer science gives us tools for studying just about everything that interests us. Some take the extreme view that all science is computer science now. That may be extreme, but in one way it isn't extreme enough! Computer science doesn't revolutionize how we study only science, but also the social sciences and literature and art. I think that the greatest untapped reservoir of CS's influence lies in the realm of economics and political science. Chazelle makes his case that CS ultimately will supplant mathematics as the primary vehicle for writing down our science:
Physics, astronomy, and chemistry are all sciences of formulae. Chaos theory moved the algorithmic zinger to center stage. The quantitative sciences of the 21st century (e.g., genomics, neurobiology) will complete the dethronement of the formula by placing the algorithm at the core of their modus operandi.
This view is why I started my live as a computer scientist by studying AI: it offered me the widest vista on the idea of modeling the world in programs. I will be teaching CS1 this fall for the first time in ten years or so. I am always excited at the prospect of a new course and kind of audience, but I'm especially excited at the prospect of working with freshmen who are beginning our major -- or who might, or who might not but will take a little bit of computing with them off to their other majors. Learning to program (perhaps in Ruby or Python?) is still essential to that course, but I also want my students to see the beauty and importance of CS. If my students can leave CS1 next December with an appreciation of the ideas that Chazelle describes, and the role computing plays in understanding them and bringing them to the rest of the world, then I will have succeeded in some small measure. Of course, that isn't enough. We need to take these ideas to the rest of our students, especially those in the sciences -- and to their faculty! -----