Friday, December 22, 2006

Sussex in 1987

Julian Rathke is moving from Brighton to Southampton, where he joins Vladimiro Sassone (another former member of the School of Informatics at the University of Sussex). It does not take magical powers to foresee that Southampton will soon have a very strong theory group.

Julian tells me that it is a strange time at Sussex. Half of the department is moving buildings, so the department office and all of the secretaries are gone, the good old debugging room (the unofficial coffee room of the department at a time when the university regulations essentially did not allow for such rooms, hence the name) is also no more. Just an empty shell of a room now. Very sad.

Reading Julian's description prompted me to look back to a windy September-October 1987, when I arrived in Brighton to work for a year as a research assistant under Matthew Hennessy. The department of computer science was very small then. Yet, there was already a tightly knit group of theory people that created a very good atmosphere for intellectual growth. At that time, Marek Bedcnarzyk was putting the final touches to his PhD thesis, and Allen Stoughton was finalizing his monograph on fully abstract models of programming languages. Mark Millington, one of Matthew's former Edinburgh students, was there teaching Software Engineering. (It is a pity that Mark's PhD thesis is not very well known. It was a good piece of work.) I shared an office with Rance Cleaveland, a freshly minted PhD from Cornell, where he had formalized theories of processes using NuPRL. (Rance was working on the development of the Concurrency Workbench, but did a lot more than that---not least, he taught me a lot over beers at our local pub :-)) Across the fire doors leading to the Mathematics department, Andy Pitts was spending some time at Sussex, supported by a grant from the Royal Society.

Already the year after, the theory group grew substantially in size, with the arrival of PhD students from Britain and from abroad, postdocs, and later new members of staff. The rest, as they say, is history. It is a pity that not so much is left of that theory group at Sussex. (The linchpin, Matthew Hennessy, is still there, but many people have come and gone in the meantime.)

This is one of the pros and cons of academic life. One travels from place to place, possibly grows attached to each of the departments/centres one works for, and the colleagues one meets there, but eventually we all leave for somewhere else.

Good luck to Julian for his new job at Southampton, and congratulations to Vladi for having enticed an excellent collaborator like Julian to join his new department.

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