Sunday, February 21, 2021

Article by Sergey Kitaev and Anthony Mendes in Jeff Remmel's memory

Sergey Kitaev just shared with me an article he wrote with Anthony Mendes in Jeff Remmel's memory. Jeff Remmel was a distinguished mathematician with a very successful career in both logic and combinatorics. 

The short biography at the start of the article paints a vivid picture of Jeff Remmel's  personality, and will be of interest and inspiration to many readers. His hiring as "an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mathematics at UC San Diego at age 25, without officially finishing his Ph.D. and without having published a single paper" was, in Jeff Remmel's own words, a "fluke that will never happen again."

I had the pleasure of making Jeff Remmel's acquaintance when he visited Sergey in Reykjavik and thoroughly enjoyed talking to him about a variety of subjects. He was truly a larger-than-life academic.

Monday, February 08, 2021

Whence do research collaborations (in TCS) arise?

About ten days ago, I gave a talk to my colleagues at the Department of Computer Science at Reykjavik University, introducing my personal (and admittedly very biased) view of the past, present and future of ICE-TCS

After my presenta­tion, a colleague asked me how she could engage mathematicians and theoretical computer scientists in joint research. I gave her an answer off the top of my head, but it was clear that she was unconvinc­ed and felt that I was avoid­ing answering her question. (For the record, I basically told her that she should knock on our door, discuss with us the problems she was interested in solving and hope that they are of interest to us. I feel that many research collaborations arise from serendipity and that there is no recipe that is guaranteed to work.) 

The thought that she felt that I might have dodged her question prompted me to look back at my own research collabo­rations and how they came about. The rest of this post is the result of that quick-and-dirty reflection. Let me state right away that my list isn't meant to be exhausti­ve and that I won't mention many of the collaborations in which I have been lucky to be involved and that I have played a crucial role in shaping my academic development. 

Reading papers. One of my long-term research collaborations arose from reading a paper written by a colleague. His paper prompted my companion and me to ask ourselves whether we could prove a similar result to the one our colleague had shown in a different setting. We succeeded and sent him our paper. Subsequently, we invited him to visit us in Aalborg. That visit marked the start of a collaboration and friendship that has lasted for over 20 years.

Approaching a colleague via email for help in solving a problem. At some point, my companion and I were thinking about a research problem that had frustrated us for a while. I remembered reading a number of papers by a colleague on related topics, so I wrote to him, describing the problem, our attempts at solving it and where we had hit a brick wall. I asked him whether he would be interested in working with us on solving it. He did and that was one of the lucky breaks I have had in my research career. Once more, that collaboration offer via email led to mutual visits, other joint papers and, IMHO even more importantly, a long-term friendship that extended beyond work.

Available funding and building on one's mistakes. One day in 2009, an email in my mailbox alerted me to the availability of substantial funding for research collabo­ration between universities in country X and those locat­ed in Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein. This opportunity was enticing, as I had never visited country X, so I asked myself: "Is there anyone there we might conceivably work with?'' Mulling over that question, I recalled that a colleague from country X had spotted an imprecision in a paper I had coauthored. 

I wrote to him, we applied for that funding jointly and got it. That successful grant application provided the funds for many research visits involving several people in our research groups. Those visits resulted in joint papers, another successful grant application and a number of friendships.

Coffee breaks at conferences. I have at least two exhibits under this heading. The first belongs to a previous geologic­al era (1991). I was attend­ing a conference at CMU and asked a colleague what he was working on. He told me
about a problem he was tackling, which I knew was also on the radar of a fellow researcher and on which I had started working independently. Eventually, after some email exchanges, that chat over coffee turned into a three-way collaboration that, thanks to my coauthors, produced one of my best papers.

Fast forward to 2017 and I'm in Rome to deliver an invited talk at a small conference. During the coffee break follow­ing my presentation, I was approached by a young research­er, with whom I had a number of pleasant conversations during the conference. Some time later, she sent me a draft paper dealing with a topic related to the content of my invited talk. I invited her to visit our research group in Reykjavik and to join the team working on a research project for which we had funding at the time. Those coffee-break conversations led to a collaboration and friendship that I hope will last for a long time. Meeting that colleague has been another of my lucky breaks.

Reading groups. Last, but by no means least, let me mention that my first research collaboration that did not involve my thesis supervisors arose when I read Gordon Plotkin's famous "Pisa Notes (On Domain Theory)" with a fellow PhD student. Reading that work led to our first joint paper in 1991 and a companionship that has lasted to this day. I heard Orna Kupferman give the following, tongue-in-cheek advice to young researchers: "Write papers with your twin-sister!" Mine might be: "Write papers with your companion in life!" 

Let me conclude by saying that serendipity and an actual friendship that extends beyond the confines of scientific work were the key aspects in my most pleasant and enduring collaborations. I apologise to the colleagues from whom I have learnt much over the years (former students and postdocs, as well as others) who were the prime movers in research collaborations I did not mention in this post. 

 I guess that this note provides much more information than my colleague was intending to receive, but I thought I should put it out for the benefit of the young researchers at Reykjavik University and at the Gran Sasso Science Institute, and of any reader I might have. 

How did your research collaborations arise? If you have anything to add to what I wrote above, and I am sure you do, add your contributions as comments to this post.

Friday, February 05, 2021

Support research in the Foundations of Computing at the University of Leicester!

In an ideal world, university administrators would support the work of the top-class academics employed by their institution, especially if they attract students, have a high research standing within their communities and bring in substantial funding from competitive research funds. After all, to quote Isidor Isaac Rabi, "the faculty are the university" and the most valuable currency for an academic institution is reputation. 

Unfortunately, university administrations the world over repeatedly surprise me by making structural changes that affect some of their very best academics and actually reduce the reputation of their institutions in the eyes of the community at large.

The latest example comes from the University of Leicester, where, as stated here,

[the] University VC proposes to merge Informatics and Mathematics into a combined school focussed exclusively on AI, data science, computational modelling and "digitalisation". This includes the proposal to cease research in Foundations of Computer Science (FoCo) where research is "highly theoretical and not directly linked with applications", retaining staff only if the research they have published in the past (!) aligns well with the new desired focus on foundations of AI, computational modelling, data science and digitalisation. Staff have been given no opportunity to alter their research to fit with the proposed new direction. The plan is to make redundant (in the middle of a pandemic) all (up to 10) staff in foundations of computer science whose past research is deemed not to be a good enough fit with the new strategic priorities.

See also this statement by the University and College Union of the University of Leicester. 

I might be biased, but I find it inconceivable that one can think of building a world-class research programme in AI, data science and computational modelling without building on existing strengths in the Foundations of Computer Science and Mathematics. What my crystal ball tells me is that the strong Leicester academics who might be affected by the planned restructuring will find positions elsewhere and that the University of Leicester is shooting itself in the foot. Which high-profile academic would be enticed to join a university that has shown so little consideration for its existing areas of strength and where one's job might be in danger when the buzzwords du jour change, as they undoubtedly will? 

I encourage you to sign the petition in support of our Leicester colleagues. Kudos to Isobel Armstrong, FBA, for returning her honorary doctorate to the University of Leicester upon hearing of their plans!

Monday, February 01, 2021

Two PhD positions at the Department of Computer Science, Reykjavik University: Model-driven SE for blockchain and smart contracts

The Software and Emerging Technology Lab at the Department of Computer Science, Reykjavik University, is looking for two PhD candidates to work on an ongoing research project on the application of Model Driven Software Engineering principles, methodologies, technologies and abstractions to Blockchain and Smart Contracts. While both positions require strong software development skills and familiarity with the model-driven software engineering approach, the first position will focus on domain analysis and code generation, while the second position is concerned with contract safety and validity and requires knowledge in model verification and validation. The project is based in Iceland. It will be directed by Mohammad Hamdaqa in collaboration with Luca Aceto and Gísli Hjálmtýsson and in close collaboration with Polytechnique Montréal in Canada. The positions are fully funded and include full tuition waiver and a salary in accordance with the Icelandic Research Fund guidelines. Particularly the funding is covering full tuition as well as a stipend of 383,000 ISK per month before taxes for a minimum of three years. 
If you are interested to apply, please send the documents below to the following email addresses:
  • A copy of your CV and research interests
  • A copy of all your transcripts
  • A sample publication
  • A maximum of one page research statement of your plans for research in your PhD.
  • Your intended starting date / and if you need a visa
  • For more information about the position and the research topics, do not hesitate to send your enquiries to any of the project collaborators.
Luca Aceto (

Gísli Hjálmtýsson (

Informal inquiries about the project and the conditions of work are very welcome. We will start reviewing applications as soon as they arrive and will continue to accept applications until each position is filled. We strongly encourage interested applicants to send their applications as soon as possible and no later than 28 February 2021.