Waterman behind the scenes! Partying hard with the National Science Board

A few months ago, I got a surprise call from Subra Suresh, director of the National Science Foundation, who told me I was going to share this year’s Alan T. Waterman Award with Robert Wood of Harvard.  (At first I assumed it was a telemarketing call, since pretty much no one calls my office phone; I use my iPhone exclusively and have trouble even operating my desk phone.)  Dr. Suresh explained that this was the first time the Waterman would ever be awarded to two people the same year, but that the committee was unanimous in supporting both me and Rob.  Looking up my co-winner, I quickly learned that Rob was a leader in the field of robot bees (see here for video)—and that his work, despite having obvious military applications, had been singled out by Sean Hannity as the latter’s #1 example of government waste (!).  That fact, alone, made me deeply honored to share the award with Rob, and eager to meet him in person.

Happily, I finally got to do that this past Thursday, at the Waterman award ceremony in Washington DC.  The festivities started in the morning, with talks by me and Rob to the National Science Board.  (I just performed my usual shtick.  I was hoping Rob would bring some actual RoboBees, but he said he no longer does that due to an unfortunate run-in with airport security.)  Then, after lunch and meetings at the NSF, it was back to the hotel to change into a tux, an item I’d never worn before in my life (not even at my wedding).  Fortunately, my dad was there to help me insert the cufflinks and buttons, a task much more complicated than anything I was allegedly getting the award for.  Then Dana and I were picked up by a limo, to begin the arduous mile-long journey from Dupont Circle to the State Department for the awards dinner.

Besides me and Rob, there were three other awardees that night:

  • Leon Lederman, the 89-year-old Nobel physicist whose popular book (The God Particle) I enjoyed as a kid, received the Vannevar Bush Award.
  • Lawrence Krauss, physicist and popular science writer, and National Public Radio’s science desk shared the National Science Board Public Service Award.  Some readers of science blogs might recognize Lawrence Krauss from his recent brouhaha over literally nothing with the philosopher of science David Albert.  (For whatever it’s worth, I have little to add to Sean Carroll’s diplomatic yet magisterial summary of the issues over on Cosmic Variance.)

Speaking of diplomacy, the awards dinner was held in the “diplomatic reception rooms” on the top floor of the State Department’s Harry S. Truman Building.   These were pretty awesome rooms: full of original portraits of George Washington, Ben Franklin, etc., as well as antique furniture pieces like a desk that Thomas Jefferson allegedly used while writing the Declaration of Independence.  I could easily eat dinner there on a regular basis.

Carl Wieman, the Nobel physicist and Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, read out a congratulatory message from President Obama.  I feel certain the President remembered I was the same dude he shook hands with a while back.

Anyway, cutting past dinner and dessert, here was my short acceptance speech:

Thanks for this honor, and huge congratulations to my co-winners, wherever in the alphabet they might lie [a reference to my getting called up before Rob Wood, simply because Aaronson<Wood lexicographically].  I like to describe my research, on the limits of quantum computers, as the study of what we can’t do with computers we don’t have.  Why would I or anyone else study such a bizarre thing?  Mostly because we’re inspired by history.  In the 1930s, before electronic computers even existed, a few people like Alan Turing were already trying to understand mathematically what such devices would or wouldn’t be able to do.  Their work ultimately made possible the information age.  Today, we don’t know exactly where curiosity about (say) quantum computers or the P versus NP question is going to lead, but I’m grateful to live in a country that’s able to support this kind of thing.  I thank the NSF and the Obama administration for supporting basic science even in difficult times.  I thank Subra Suresh (my former dean at MIT), and my phenomenal program officer Dmitry Maslov.  I thank the teachers and mentors to whom I owe almost everything, including Chris Lynch, Bart Selman, Avi Wigderson, and Umesh Vazirani.  I thank my wonderful colleagues at MIT—including my department head Anantha Chandrakasan, who’s here now—and my students and postdocs.  I thank my collaborators, and the entire theory of computing and quantum information communities, which I’m so proud to be part of.  I thank my students in 6.045 for understanding why I had to miss class today.  Most of all, I thank four people who are here with me now—my mom, dad, and my brother David, who’ve always believed in me, whether justified or not, and my wife, Dana Moshkovitz Aaronson, who’s enriched my life ever since she came into it three years ago.  Thank you.

The next day, I had the privilege of giving a quantum computing talk to more than 100 students at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in nearby Alexandria, VA.  Visiting TJ had special meaning for me, since while I was suffering through high school, TJ was my “dream school”: I wished my parents lived in the DC area so that I could go there.  I told the TJ students never to forget just how good they had it.  (To this day, when I meet fellow American-raised scientists, and they tell me they’re surprised I had such an unhappy time in high school, since they themselves had a great time, I always ask them which high school they went to.  In a large fraction of cases, the answer turns out to be TJ—and when it isn’t, it’s often the Bronx High School of Science or another similar place.)  As should surprise no one, the students had vastly more detailed questions about my talk than did the National Science Board (for example, they wanted to know whether I thought progress in group theory would lead to new quantum algorithms).

Without doubt, the most surreal aspect of this trip was the contrast between what was going on in my “real” and “virtual” lives.  Again and again, I’d be shaking hands with the Undersecretary of Defense, Director of the National Institute of Prestigiousness, etc. etc., and warmly accepting these fine people’s congratulations.  Then I’d sneak away for a minute to moderate my blog comments on my iPhone, where I’d invariably find a fresh round of insults about my “deeply ignorant lesser brain” from entanglement denier Joy Christian.

Perhaps the funniest contrast had to do with a MathOverflow question that I posted just before I left for DC, and which was quickly answered, just as I had hoped.  During the limo ride back from the dinner, I got the following polite inquiry from a blog commenter calling himself “Mike”:

Hey Scott, I’m wondering how you got the courage to post that question on [MathOverflow]. In truth it wasn’t that hard of a question and if you have trouble solving it then…well, no offense, but you see what I mean. Reputation matters.

As I contemplated Mike’s question, a profound sense of peace came over me.  Probably for the first time in my life, I realized just how lucky I really am.  I’m lucky that I feel free to ask naïve, simpleminded questions, toss out speculations, and most importantly, admit when I don’t know something or made a mistake, without worrying too much about whether those actions will make me look foolish before the “Mikes” of the world.  If I want to work on a problem myself, I can do that; if I prefer giving the problem out to others, I can do that as well.  Let Mike, with his greater wisdom, sit in judgment of me for my failure to see all the answers that no doubt are obvious to him.  I don’t mind.  In science, like in everything else, I’ll continue being an unabashed doofus—partly because it seems to work OK, but mostly just because it’s the only way I know.

Thanks so much to all of you for your support.

35 Responses to “Waterman behind the scenes! Partying hard with the National Science Board”

  1. Jay L. Gischer Says:

    Congratulations, Scott. Please, please, PLEASE, continue to be a doofus.

    That is all.

  2. Carl Says:

    The Mikes really do make the internet unbearable, don’t they? Keep asking questions!

  3. The Quantum Fault-Tolerance Debate Updates | Combinatorics and more Says:

    […] help. This is also related to something Scott Aaronson wrote. (Congratulations again, Scott, on the Waterman award!) Scott said that we all agree that building a quantum computer is really really hard. Not so […]

  4. Akhil Says:


  5. Mike Says:

    Just to be clear — although I’ve been known to be a smart ass, I’m not the Mike who made the snarky comment 😉

  6. Scott Says:

    Thanks so much, guys!

    Mike: Yeah, I know it wasn’t you. 🙂 It was someone, apparently from Connecticut, who’s left a large number of trollish comments, using many different names but just a few IP addresses.

  7. Theoretician Says:

    Congratulations to the Waterman awards committee for making such a wonderful selection!

  8. Joshua Zelinsky Says:

    Congratulations! Also, how did you answer the group theory question? From a very naive standpoint, the period finding part of Shor’s algorithm is essentially group theory.

  9. Ben Lund Says:


    Mike’s comment comes from a world in which the only way to determine the truth or falsity of a statement is to judge the credibility of it’s author. Fortunately, we don’t live in such a world.

  10. rrtucci Says:

    Joshua Z, you have a density matrix for many qubits. Density matrices with special symmetries (and thus group theory) come into play. As an example, the density matrix for pure states is highly symmetric.

  11. Henning Dekant Says:

    Let’s hope your not the only doofus out there whose accomplishments are properly recognized. I am hoping for a wider trend where young scientists like Michael Nielsen and you turn out to be an avant-garde for a more open, accessible, fun loving science culture.

    Science is supposed to be fun and if this permeates the wider popular culture hopefully high-schools everywhere will one day offer a better experience to geeky kids.

  12. rrtucci Says:

    Joshua Z., also, you want to operate on density matrices with particular symmetries with operators with particular symmetries.

  13. Scott Says:

    Thanks, Joshua! Yes, Shor’s and related algorithms are the great applications of abelian group theory to quantum algorithms. As I recall, I answered that question by talking about the various things people are trying to do or have done to generalize to the non-abelian case. In particular:

    (1) Recent work of Babai, Beals, and Seress implies that the membership problem for matrix groups is in BQP, at least over finite fields of odd order. (This is proved by combining a purely classical result—a difficult one involving the Classification Theorem—with a black-box invocation of Shor’s algorithm.)

    (2) The non-abelian hidden subgroup problem, to which (e.g.) the graph isomorphism and approximate shortest vector problems are reducible, has been extensively studied for the past 17 years. Unfortunately, the main positive results that we have apply only to “slightly” non-abelian groups (like the Heisenberg group). But it’s conceivable that better understanding of group theory or representation theory would lead to better algorithms.

  14. Henning Dekant Says:

    Rereading my comment I realize I forget this: Congrats! 🙂

    Meant to put this at the beginning of the former comment.

  15. rrtucci Says:

    A related question is:
    Why would group theory play a substantially different role in the quantum algorithm domain than it does in the classical algorithm domain?

  16. Scott Says:

    rrtucci, a one-sentence answer to your question might be: because at least in the oracle setting, if you want to use quantum interference to get exponential speedups, then you seem to need oracle problems that have lots of “hidden symmetrical structure” (the two canonical examples being Simon’s problem and Shor’s period-finding problem), and groups are one of the most common and useful ways to represent such structure.

    Btw, thanks, Henning and Ben!

  17. IT PARK Says:


    Puzzle: Find monalisa in this picture.


  18. Tim Sally Says:


    Congratulations and thanks especially for the last part. A world where everyone “admit[s] when [they] don’t know something or made a mistake” is one to strive for.


  19. Slipper.Mystery Says:

    The tux is awesome (and certainly a palliative for lesser brain function), stay with it.

  20. asdf Says:

    Congrats, Scott. #9 is my favorite picture though I missed the surprise in #5 til just above. And holy crap, TU Muenchen has cancelled all its Elsevier subscriptions:


  21. Anonymous Says:

    Congratulations Scott!

    I wish we had more researchers like you who were not afraid or too proud to ask simple questions.

    You are lucky in many ways, among them having a wonderful wife. Wish the best for both of you.

  22. Luca Says:

    Scott, it seems that “Mike” of the bitchy comment is more like the kid that went to your high school than those who go to Bronx high or TJ, and it’s pretty clear which of the two attitudes toward life makes people happier and more successful

  23. Math Student Says:

    Congrats Scott….even more so after I looked over the list of previous winners. Not bad company 🙂


    To be fair, there are plenty of eminent and highly decorated individuals who are much closer to mike’s mindset than scott’s….which just means we should applaud more for the people willing to sacrifice a few “reputation points” for increased collective understanding.

  24. David Gelbart Says:

    Congrats Scott!! Nice to see your dedication to your field continues to be recognized and rewarded.

  25. David Brown Says:

    Prof. Aaronson: Congratulations for winning the Waterman Award and creating publicity for Joy Christian’s work.

  26. Anish Tondwalkar Says:

    Scott, congrats again for your Waterman, and thanks for the talk and Q&A session at TJ! I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    In response to my questions about group theory, there was something you recommended I read, but I can’t seem to remember it (sounded something like ‘molonov’?). Can you remind me? Thanks.

  27. Scott Says:

    Thanks, Anish!

    As for what I suggested you read: sounds like ‘molonov’? What a clue to go on! 🙂 In quantum computing, the closest we have do “molonov” is probably Dorit Aharonov. She’s indeed written beautiful survey articles about quantum algorithms (one is linked to in the “Quantum Computing Primers” section on the sidebar to the right of this blog). But I can’t remember why I would’ve recommended them in response to your question specifically.

    If you give me more details about your questions (i.e., re-ask them), I’ll be happy to give you a new reading recommendation, which might or might not be identical to the original one!

  28. Joe Fitzsimons Says:

    Congratulations, Scott, on a well deserved honor. It is heartening to see your work getting the recognition it clearly deserves. (Although it is simultaneously depressing when I realize how close we are in age!)

  29. IThinkImClever Says:

    Don’t let it go to your head, but …

    Dude! you’re Scott Fucking Aaronson!

    Not only is your reputation already well known, it would be criminal for you to over-contemplate trivial or simple questions, although their solutions are sometimes the most difficult to see.

    I also say feel free to ask ‘simple’ and/or ‘dumb’ questions. Sometimes they prove to be the most fruitful ones, and other’s insights on them can prove useful. Don’t let the “Mike’s” of the world get to you.

    Some of us are living vicariously through you, you frickin’ genius. Stop sweating the small stuff. =)

  30. Miguel Says:

    Congratulations, Scott!!!

  31. =) Says:

    Oh my goodness scott! congratulations to you =), I’m sure your partyin hard haha, I sure hope you do/did get a chance to chill and refresh in yourself that confidence that really has gotten you this far. You know you have a gift many wish to have, to understand naturally, to just be able to use your mind and arrive at something reasonable enough to build on.

    I was just able to look up as my cat sat on my computer,
    IThinkImClever did say something great. You are S F***A , and you should NEVER let , a snigh comment or insult truly get to you, let it fuel your brains fire to gain more intelligence! #harnesstheforce ;)jkn.//

    but really you are strong to recognize that seeking out answers you dont know or working on a problem is just the answer to come closer to understanding it, np admitting if you knew the answer RIGHT than or not, because with some thought you will(<<% than not).

    If you are anything like you were, I hope you are doing well =), I see you got married, congratulations and the last photo of your post is great! you,your wife and brother look happy =)

    BTw, nice twist with Shor's algorithm on the purely classical combo

    one of the last things I was going to say was actually something you have already left in a comment in this post already! proving you may be somewhat the same scott=) if i recall. Guess who i am, IP address man, ever since you told me about how you notice who and what type of tendencies off watching the posterIP, I two found that concept valuable.
    if you cant guess who I am, I will tell you im sure.

    I have something that happened to me recently, very coincidental, which means by no way was it actually coincidental =) and it does have a small contemplation part that I may want to ask you your thought on. (large scale concept) but for now (small scale concept) what in your opinion is the chance that someone could be in the right spot at the right time to see something (only occurring for an extremely short time) at the right location on earth and in space(I was bias on where i was looking although using only simplistic reasoning (just a weird sense in the cosmos I've had and been able to track)small traces of notable scientific reasoning), AND ALSO have something looking right there to capture the mystery? Compounding all into noticing its recent discovery also by (KATZ/Berkeley) within the same 12to 24 hours of the event on my end, they published a short synapse over night, but If we are both tackling the correct* event, both probably at relative times, I believe I have a bunch more to add to it having been true/correct. The problem I've been having doing something about it, is of course the odds of all of the correct environmental factors that were all spot on to actually be this randomly significantly precise.

    To top it off, the reference frame me and you met at, (also having to do with where I'm/them/and KATZ are located on earth) just published something maybe a couple days ago that they too found something, both being in the opposite stage like found first (aftereffects) found later (june 2nd or something, the initial goodbye to create the aftereffects) in a relatively close not precise galactic location. literally there are so many other "coincidences" that seem to be puzzling me out of my mind, freezing me on what to even think or do regarding the massive coincidental sequence. I know this is extremely vague because I can not publicly detail it here but really, all this coincidence, such rare/significant accumulation of chance could have actually taken place or is it of course some error. there is some type of way of proving if it is correct and I have been working on how to use those tools, but it is even harder to say yay or nah from a possible error or not that I am just so stuck and puzzled and I know you are intelligent, where do your thoughts lie on a compounding sequence of coincidences that the computation surrounding them is just a wee bit out of say human scale! lol

    sorry for the run on sentences, i hope you are doing well with your wife and family back home or where you may b traveling to, treat yourself right, youve obviously been doing well advocating the some computational science for america, and that is extremely important. Plus I cant believe you are over 35! lol are you even 35 yet, what a prize to get right at the age of the requirement for the prize=)

    take care

    p/s. boo on the mail requirement, now you will know without a cool guess on who i may be lol. =)

  32. Philip White Says:

    I can’t believe I didn’t see this. I went to TJHSST from 2000-2002, then switched to a different school.

    It’s very strong academically, but not without problems. When I went there I expected it to be a sort of promised land for nerds, but was disappointed.

    Aside from the creationist history teacher who taught a quarter-long unit on the perils of believing in evolution, the biggest problem at TJ was probably what you might call the “preppie infiltrator” problem. A lot of kids who just want to get into Harvard get in, and they don’t care at all about math/science. They could also be very competitive and very mean.

    TJ is the sort of school where 95% of the student body is “accepted,” and then the other 5% is miserable. It’s great for the socially average nerds, but those of us who struggled to fit in even at TJ had it worse than misfits at Lake Braddock. At least there are lots of other misfits at what TJ kids call their “base school.”

    Then there was the cheating problem….

  33. RT.COM -> Это происходит, на каком языке? -> WHAT R U –PEOPLES DOING?זה קורה ב איזה שפה?זה קורה באיזה שפה?זה קורה באיזה שפה?זה קורה באיזה שפה– BIBI ?Dit geb Says:

    […] help. This is also related to something Scott Aaronson wrote. (Congratulations again, Scott, on the Waterman award!) Scott said that we all agree that building a quantum computer is really really hard. Not so fast, […]

  34. Gabe P Says:

    Congrats on the recognition, Scott, and many thanks to you for continuing to write one of the best science blogs on the net.

  35. Frederik W Says:

    I’m a high school student from Denmark interested in math and science and I would just like to congratulate you on the fine honor bestowed upon you and inform you of the positive influence you’ve had on me.

    Stay hungry, stay foolish.