A prophet will arise

At last night’s FOCS business meeting, there was a panel discussion on how to get the public excited about theoretical computer science. Unfortunately I missed it — I’m skipping FOCS for the first time in years — so I’m grateful to Rocco Servedio for this post about the discussion and to Dave Bacon for this one.

The obvious question is, why has there been so little success at popularizing theoretical computer science? Here I’d like to propose an answer to this question: because no one in human history has ever successfully popularized any field of science.

“But that’s absurd!” you interject. “What about Stephen Hawking, or Richard Dawkins, or Carl Sagan, or Richard Feynman, or Isaac Asimov, or Bertrand Russell?”

My response is simple. These people are not popularizers. They are prophets.

Like Moses descending from Sinai, the scientific prophet emerges from the clouds of Platonic heaven with a vision for the huddled throng below: that yea, though our lives may be fleeting and our bodies frail, through reason we shall know the mind of God. We are apes with telescopes, star-stuff pondering the stars.

Often, as in the cases of Hawking and Feynman, the prophet’s own life is central to the vision. The prophet teaches by example, showing us that no physical impediment is too great to overcome, that the world is full of solvable mysteries, that Nature cannot be fooled.

The prophet does not confine himself to his “area of expertise,” any more than Moses limited himself to shepherding regulations or Jesus to carpentry tips. He draws on his field for illustration, to be sure, but his real interest is life itself. He never hesitates to philosophize or moralize, even if only to tell his listeners that philosophers and moralists are idiots.

The scientific prophet presents humanity with a choice: will we persist in our petty squabbles and infantile delusions, Neanderthals with computers and ICBM’s? Or will we create a better world, one worthy of reasoning beings?

Even when the prophet exhorts us to reason, skepticism, and empiricism, he does so by hijacking a delivery system that is thousands of years old. And that is why he succeeds.

Theoretical computer science will capture the public’s imagination when, and only when, it produces a prophet.

23 Responses to “A prophet will arise”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    How to get the public excited about theoretical computer science? How about printing up t-shirts that say “P != NP” (or “P = NP” if you’re optimistic or just contrary) and hope it spreads like a meme to popular culture.

  2. Bram Says:

    It’s kind of hard for someone to claim to be a prophet based on a field where all the important statements are conjecture.

    The fields with prophets tend to have have a lot to say, even if it’s wrong. Physics had relativity (even though in popularization it’s just the catchphrase ‘everything is relative’ and the actual physical meaning is left out) quantum mechanics has probability (the schrodinger’s cat experiment is always explained as an experiment in probability, not in quantum uncertainty, but the general public doesn’t understand probability anyway, so they think it was invented as part of quantum mechanics) astronomy has – actually, it doesn’t matter what astronomy has, because it changes every ten years or so anyway.

    A general trend here seems to be that the prophet’s popular interpretation of their field is completely wrong. Feynman is notable for actually presenting some science in his popular work, but he’s an exception. It’s hard to see how someone could even misrepresent the state of theoretical computer science as prophetic though, until it can prove some of its grand theories about life, the universe, and everything, as opposed to merely speculating about them.

  3. Scott Says:

    Bram: In the hands of a skilled prophet, the mystery of P versus NP would be golden, just as the mystery of extraterrestrial life was for Carl Sagan and the mystery of how to unify gravity and QM is for Brian Greene. Solved problems and settled controversies are where the prophet has to work harder.

  4. Scott Says:

    And besides (in the spirit of “the food is terrible and the portions are too small”), who says theoretical computer science doesn’t have a lot to say? It says that thousands of seemingly-unrelated problems are actually the same problem. It says that P versus NP is hard because all the techniques we know would yield efficient algorithms for some of the very problems they’re supposed to be proving intractable. It says that either 10000-digit integers can be factored in seconds or else physics is due for its biggest upheaval in 80 years.

  5. Bram Says:

    Unfortunately for any would-be prophet, we don’t actually have any big controversies. We have major unsolved problems, but everybody already knows that P != NP.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    No prophet has done any good to this world, but if we are to look at the spirit of your thought, you may be right.

    A prophet, as you say, has to look beyond their immediate confines. And that is possible only when someone learns there is more to TCS than gazing at their own navel.

    We do not have a critical mass for a prophet to emerge. There is nothing much to lead.

  7. Kurt Says:

    “In the hands of a skilled prophet, the mystery of P versus NP would be golden, just as the mystery of extraterrestrial life was for Carl Sagan and the mystery of how to unify gravity and QM is for Brian Greene.”

    Well, how about this for a start: It couldn’t be that hard to contact the Nova producers who were responsible for The Proof or the Brian Greene shows, and pitch them a story idea for P vs. NP. If no one in the theory community wants to make the time commitment to work on the writing, you could always enlist the help of Simon Singh (who has already written on crypto) or someone similar. And now that I think about it, doesn’t Lance have some Hollywood connections?

  8. Scott Says:

    “Unfortunately for any would-be prophet, we don’t actually have any big controversies.”

    What about whether quantum computing is a sham, or whether currently-deployed cryptosystems are insecure, or whether the brain should be understood as a finite automaton? You might say these controversies are not properly part of theoretical computer science, but then you’d be defining the field more narrowly than a prophet would.

  9. Cheshire Cat Says:

    Prophets don’t usually have theories about prophets… Scott, will you lead us?

  10. Scott Says:

    “Scott, will you lead us?”

    Sure. Just let me take a nap, get some bubble tea, and read The Onion first.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    I remember in the late 1970s (when I was in high school) AI was receiving a fair bit of attention in the media (including TV shows like Nova). It was the kind of story that seemed exciting to a broad audience. Plus there were computer demos that could be shown — ever heard of Block World? (In hindsight, we know most AI research didn’t go very far …)

    Although the BPP vs P question is very deep and exciting, to me it seems harder to get people excited about this. Plus it’s hard to give a “demo” for a reduction or a lower bound.

  12. Anonymous Says:

    Can you make titles for your posts? It’s much more convenent for those of us who have RSS readers.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    Scott, I think that the “prophet” does not accurately capture the kind of person that you’re referring to. Rather, it’s someone who, apart from being very talented, has some combination of (a) charisma and (b) a life-story that carries human interest. Hawking is an example of (a) and Feynman of (b). People are drawn to stories, like that of Galois or Ramanujan, but it’s not the mathematics itself that interests non-mathematicians.

    Who are the most “colorful” theoretical computer scientists?
    Offhand, the top ones that I can think of are great people, but not extraordinary in terms of their life stories. And they can give excellent talks, maybe not the kind that would mesmerize a television audience (say).

  14. Cheshire Cat Says:

    Last anonymous, you are quite right, the ones I can think of are either not quite theoretical computer scientists (Ben Green) or not quite colorful enough (Mary Cryan).

  15. Miss HT Psych Says:

    You forgot Darwin in your list… although I’m not sure he can be credited with all the work on making his theories popular. Francis Galton went a long way with that… and completely bastardizing them in the process.

  16. Scott Says:

    Miss HT: Thanks! I actually thought of including Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”), who was definitely a prophet in my sense. (Darwin himself is a more borderline case — if he was a prophet, it probably wasn’t because of conscious positioning on his part.) But then I decided to focus on 20th-century prophets.

  17. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Of course the media is flooded with discussions of computers and technology in general, but sadly they don’t ever talk about complexity theorists. The reason is very simple: It is impossible to describe, or more importantly to pretend to describe, what a complexity theorist does in two sentences. It is easy to pretend to describe what a physicist does in one or two sentences. The audience that you can expect decreases exponentially with the length of this short introduction.

    It isn’t any better for mathematicians than for complexity theorists. Even when it is much easier to actually explain what a given mathematician does than what his counterpart in the physics department does, it is harder to pretend to explain. So the journalists prefer to talk to physicists.

    But then, what is it worth to be famous? It is nice to be well-known among people who actually understand you. Fame beyond that is a nuisance, or worse.

  18. Bram Says:

    The state of computer security is unfortunately more about pitiful software engineering than cryptography. The philosophers who claim that the church-turing thesis doesn’t apply to human brains are completely missing the boat. That’s one thing which goads me about penrose’s books – it’s completely obvious that he’s uncomfortable with non-computability, so he’s making stuff up to try to claim it doesn’t exist. As incredibly obvious as this is though, all reviewers completely miss out on it, which is a good example of just how removed the material is from a general audience.

    The collision between quantum computation and the church-turing thesis, on the other hand, might actually work. But explaining it in a way where it wouldn’t be completely misunderstood by the general public and downright misrepresented by commentators would be a very tall order.

  19. Kurt Says:

    I was at the bookstore earlier and happened to pick up a copy of The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life, and How to Be Happy by Rudy Rucker. Among the promotional quotes on the back cover was this by Stephen Wolfram: “Rudy Rucker is an outstanding prophet of what will probably be the greatest intellectual revolution of our times. …”

    So there you have it; you need look no further than the sidebar to this blog. (And although the book may not exactly be theoretical computer science, anything with “gnarly computation” in the title has got to be worthy.)

  20. David Molnar Says:

    Rudy Rucker wrote an entire popular account of set theory and large cardinals among other things (_Infinity and the Mind_). Before that, he wrote a science fiction novel about trying to solve the Continuum Hypothesis (_White Light_). Both are worth a look.

  21. Bram Says:

    If we’re discussing people who might be prophet, I’d like to nominate William Poundstone.

  22. Scott Says:

    David: I read Infinity and the Mind when I was twelve, and it made a big impression on me. Later I met Rudy when I went to SJSU to give a talk, and he’s since become a friend. He’s a bit crazy, though.

  23. Jerome Says:

    Apparently you guys have missed the boat (or was it Noah’s Ark?) Here’s the absolute latest:
    Einstein attempted to define God and Evil using Mathematics, but the problem therein is that God is not of Corporeality or Differentiated Relativity, as such may be defined by Mathematics, but is, instead, of Incorporeality and Undifferentiated Relativity, and is therefore Unknown! However, to his credit, Einstein did actually define God, Evil and much more, but unbeknownst to himself at the time of his passing! Years later, Einstein and his basic and joint works with the great Indian theoretical physicist Satyendra Bose, on BEC Condensates of Matter, became the basis for further contribution by other world-renown BEC physicists, and the modern science of QUFD Physics was born, in effect Einstein’s contribution thereto being the Philosophy, if not the Mathematics, of a BEC Condensate of Non-Matter, or Incorporeality! And thusly QUFD Physics does truly define God, Evil and much more, purely scientifically, with no Religion, New Age fantasy, Spiritualism or even Metaphysics to interfere with fact and truth! For more about this, read the RSS blog on your RSS Feed Reader, entitled, “QUFD, God and the Mind!”: http://www.angelfire.com/ca/sanmateoissues/blog/rss.xml