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.


Anonymous said...

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.

That's very impressive... But what about other areas of TCS? For example, how many Italians did we see in the FOCS/STOC PCs over the last couple of years? As far as I remember, there were a couple of them, but all with foreign affiliations.

Luca, is it true that in the Computer Science Department of the University of Pisa they hire almost only their own graduates? (I have heard about only one exception from this rule - one year ago they hired one assistant prof. from outside). Tell me honestly, how do you think: which chances would an outsider have to win a "concorso" for a full prof. in Pisa? Even if he is a superstar (e.g. one of the above-mentioned Italians that made it to FOCS/STOC PCs)?

I am sure that Montanari indeed had a huge influence on the Italian computer science. But was it really a positive one?

Luca Aceto said...

Anonymous, thanks for your comment. You raise a thorny issue that would take a very long post to discuss properly. I also feel that writing about it would be a bit like walking through a mine field. Moreover, I have been out of Italy for about 21 years now, and so mine is the view of an outsider who does not really have any first-hand knowledge of Italian academia. Still, I have a couple of rather uncontroversial things to say in relation to your question.

Many foreign onlookers have the strong impression that Italian computer science departments suffer from inbreeding and tend to hire their own. (I base this observation on conversations I have had with many colleagues.) This trend is probably more evident in the oldest departments (Pisa being the oldest CS department in Italy together with Bari, Salerno and Udine), but it seems to be rather widespread. Spurred by your question, I looked at the list of staff members in Pisa. Amongst the associate professors, at least 12 out of 17 have a PhD from Pisa. Moreover, all the five youngest full professors have PhDs from Pisa. Of course, Pisa is one of the strongest departments in Italy and it typically hires very good academics, but I do not think that one would find a similar level of "inbreeding", if I may use that word, in many top-class CS departments outside Italy.

In all honesty, outsiders probably have a hard time in winning a "concorso" (competition for a position) in CS anywhere in Italy, even if they are superstars. There are very few foreigners working in Italian CS departments. I often wonder why, and the answer is probably not pretty.

Italy exports academics, but it does not import anywhere as much as it would need to compensate for the drain of talent. Many excellent scientists stay behind and do really good work in sub-optimal circumstances, but I have talked to quite a few people who are disillusioned and are seriously considering moving abroad. These are not good times for my country. I just wish that somebody with the power to change things actually cared.

As for your last question, I guess that only time will tell. However, as Matthew Hennessy told me here at ICALP, there are certainly several areas of (T)CS where, according to the speakers at the colloquium, Montanari gave contributions that have stood the test of time.

Anonymous said...

Luca, thank you for your answer.

In all honesty, outsiders probably have a hard time in winning a "concorso" (competition for a position) in CS anywhere in Italy, even if they are superstars.

Making a weaker candidate to win a "concorso" against a stronger one (just because the former is your child/friend/student/co-author, etc.) is a crime in Italy, and the fact that "everybody does it" is not a good excuse.

Anonymous said...

I think Luca didn't mean that at Pisa, positions are given to sons, granchildren,...
He mean that Pisa tends to prefer its students because it knows how good they are.
I never heard that Montanari heartily recomended anyone for a position... did he?