Sunday, June 29, 2008

Kurt Gödel Centenary Research Prize Fellowship to Thierry Coquand

This is not really a very recent piece of news, but I became aware of it only a few days ago and, as far as I can tell, it is news that has not been covered in (TCS) blogs.

Thierry Coquand, of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, University of Gothenburg, has been awarded a senior Kurt Gödel Centenary Research Prize Fellowship of 120,000 US dollars for his pioneering research into the foundations of mathematics. The prize is personal and is a global award made to a senior researcher, whose work builds on Gödel's achievements in mathematics and logic.

To my mind, it is not so surprising that the recipient of such a prestigious award in logic is a computer scientist. Logic is the calculus of computer science, and researchers like Thierry Coquand work at the boundary between mathematical logic and theoretical computer science. Thierry's research deals with big foundational questions such as:
  • What is the structure of mathematical proof?
  • Are there links between mathematical proof and computer programs?
Some of his answers to these foundational questions are at the core of the Coq theorem prover, a proof assistant that has been used to give, amongst other things, a fully machine-checked proof of the four-colour theorem.

Amongst his many achievements, Thierry Coquand also solved a long-standing open problem in measure theory, namely how to define in a purely inductive fashion the measure of Borel sets.

Congratulations to Thierry!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Colloquium in Honour of Ugo Montanari

Tomorrow, the Science Faculty of the University of Pisa (my Italian alma mater) will host the colloquium Concurrency, Graphs and Models in honour of Ugo Montanari on the occasion of his forthcoming 65th birthday. The invited speakers for the event are:
Apart from being outstanding scientists, the speakers cover some of the many areas of theoretical computer science to which Ugo has contributed over the years. Apart from being a very productive scientist, the DBLP lists 272 of his publications as of today, Ugo has given important contributions to the theory of constraint programming, to graph grammars, to the theory of concurrency, to the theory of abstract data types (final algebra semantics for ADTs), to categorical models of concurrent computation (see his paper Petri Nets are Monoids co-authored with Meseguer, and his work on the tile model) and to algorithmics (see for instance his efficient unification algorithm developed with Alberto Martelli), amongst others.

Apart from the influence that Ugo has had on the Italian TCS community via his research, one cannot help but marvel at the number of former students of his who are now in leading positions in Italian computer science. Ugo's influence, and that of his students, is one of the reasons why when I go to a concurrency theory conference, Italians seem to be everywhere.

On a personal note, some of the best academically-related memories I have of my student days in Pisa are related to a year-long course I took with Ugo during my third year. As I remember it, the course was a veritable tour-de-force covering topics in computability, automata and formal languages, abstract data types, some logic, denotational semantics and its application to programming-language semantics. The best part of it was, however, the week-long take-home group exam that we took. It was the only such exam I ever took in Pisa, and my friends and I learned a lot while working on it. By the time the assignment was over, we had composed a song about Ugo that showed the huge respect we had for him. One of the verses read: "this chain is too long, nobody can find an upper bound for it, but Montanari" :-)

Ugo was also the examiner for my MSc thesis at the University of Pisa, which I finished in 1986 under the supervision of Rocco De Nicola, who had been an MSc student of Ugo's himself. So, in some sense, I am an academic grandchild of Ugo's. Finally let me remark that Ugo was also one of the prime movers behind the BRA project CEDYSIS, under which I was employed during my doctoral studies at the University of Sussex.

Many happy returns, Ugo. Enjoy the day!

P.S.: Any reader who would like to author a guest post on Ugo's work or on his influence on the TCS research community is most welcome to send it to me. I'll be happy to post the contributions I receive.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Cost of Appointing Science Ministers Who Have No Clue About Science

I recently read this article on The Times On Line. For somebody like me who, for some possibly weird reason, still feels for the future of British science despite having left Britain in 1994 (and officially in 1996), this article makes for depressing reading. What is even more depressing is that appointing science ministers who have no clue about the importance of science for a modern society is a rather widespread phenomenon. In this specific case, I was also amazed to read that

A series of elementary arithmetical errors generated a budget shortfall of £80m....

One can fund a lot of good science with that money!

In the article, Neil Turok is quoted as saying that: “It is ludicrous that Britain’s participation in some of the greatest scientific projects of today such as the search for dark matter, the hunt for the elementary particles like the Higgs Boson and the first detection of gravity waves, is subject to the whims of people with no special competence and little experience of these matters..... What it reflects is the failure of the political establishment to understand just how important science is for Britain’s future. Advanced research drives the quality of higher education, science and technology and generates invaluable spin-offs.” I am afraid that this true for many other countries too, alas.

What can we do about it? We should definitely do the best we can to make more people interested in science and to make the general public understand how important science is for our modern society. We should certainly stress the points raised by Turok. However, we should not forget to tell everyone how important the journey of discovery that is part and parcel of any scientific endeavour is. Doing science is a humbling experience and teaches us to be self-critical. As Socrates famously put it, a wise man is one who knows what he does not know. I wonder how many science ministers possess this type of wisdom Wink

For the record, Neil Turok is relocating to the Perimeter Institute in Canada, which he will direct from 1 October 2008. The Perimeter Institute is supported by £75m provided by Lazaridis (of Blackberry fame) and his colleagues, and £50m invested by the Canadian government and the state of Ontario. (I could not fail to notice that the budget shortfall of £80m would have helped support a similar centre in the UK.) Turok is one of the prime movers behind the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). He gave one of the TED prize talks 2008. IMHO, the talk is well worth watching and I, for one, hope that Turok's wish will come true in the not-so-distant future.