About two years ago, I went through a huge failure on a project. In the back of my mind, I always wanted to use this blog as a jumping off point for a second chance for this project. Now is the time. Perhaps some of you can help me fix this failure.
Back in early 2006, while I was on what's now known as the SIGACT Committee for the Advancement of Theoretical Computer Science, I was thinking about ways to promote theoretical computer science (TCS). One idea that struck me is that most people entering college from high school know nothing about TCS. If they've had exposure to computer science, it has been programming. Compared to the excitement of biology (we're figuring out the building blocks of life!) or physics (we're figuring out the building blocks of the universe!), computer science must seem to the average high school student to be, scientifcally speaking, a wasteland.
Now, we know this isn't true. Those of us in TCS wouldn't be in it unless we thought there were fantastic, mind-bending, potentially world-changing problems in the field. And I think history is on our side; computer science, and in particular TCS, has changed the world, fundamentally, and continues to do so. I don't think, though, we do a good job of promotion, showing the world, and in particular high school students who we might hope to attract to our field, the excitement of TCS. Somehow, our field still attracts talent, but it's an uphill battle. If we could change that, I thought, we could change the perception of our field, attracting top students earlier, and long-term creating a greater appreciation of TCS in computer science and across the sciences.
So in 2006, I dreamed up a project. I wanted a book that could be handed to high-school sophomores, to give them an idea of what TCS is all about. I wanted a book I could give to friends' kids -- heck, to my own kids, when they got to the right age (and wanted to really know what Dad did with his time). I wanted a book that would be interesting, engaging, and cover the wide swathe of work we do.
So, naturally, I knew I couldn't write this myself.
Instead, I wanted a group-book, with experts writing chapters in their areas of expertise. I reached out to about 40 or so people in the TCS community, asking them to write a chapter. I hoped first drafts could be done over summer 2006. And that by the end of the year, we might have a book ready for a publisher. About 1/2 the people agreed, and I sent occasional e-mails reminding and encouraging people.
And nothing happened. I think lots of people started, but never finished, their chapters. I heard a lot about how it was difficult to write chapters for the target audience, high school sophomores. It seemed for everyone that other projects, other papers, other things took priority. Disheartened, and busy myself, I let it go.
I still thought the project was a good idea. I still think so. So now, over the next couple of weeks, I'm going to revive the project here on the blog. I hope to change the nature of the project a bit, so my initial management failure won't necessarily repeat itself. It's something I've wanted to do since I started the blog, but I've kept putting it off.
I think it's time to try again. More to follow.