Monday, September 22, 2008


I spent most of the day over at the Microsoft Research New England Opening Symposium over at MIT. It was a very nice event. Part of the fun was that it was well attended -- I got to catch up with some people I haven't seen for a while. But they also had a very nice collection of speakers.

There was a panel discussion on interdisciplinary research (a theme of the new lab), and a natural question was how such research should be encouraged. Nobody on the panel seemed to make what I thought was an obvious point: one way to encourage such research is to make sure people across the sciences are well trained in mathematics and (theoretical) computer science. Interdisciplinary research depends on finding a common language, which historically has been mathematics, but these days more and more involves algorithms, complexity, and programming.

Luckily, to make the point for me, Erik Demaine next gave a talk entitled "(Theoretical) Computer Science is Everywhere", whipping through examples in arts, business, society, games, other sciences, and so on. It was a really inspiring talk, one that should be given to incoming freshman in the field, or better yet, to high school students who don't know what computer science is about. The talk was taped and hopefully I'll have a link to it soon. Afterwards, as several of us were talking about it, there were some minor issues raised. I myself brought up my common concern that perhaps more theorists should take a more direct role in promoting the practice of CS theory, including in other fields. My colleague Greg Morrisett questioned whether Erik couldn't have replaced "Theoretical Computer Science" with "Applied Math" and given pretty much the same talk. I think it's an interesting point, although I do think TCS's emphasis on complexity and algorithmic thinking does give it a distinct perspective.

Another talk I enjoyed (more than I thought I would from the title) was "Understanding Socio-Technical Phenomena in a Web2.0 Era" by danah boyd, who will be starting at MSR NE this January. She is an ethnographer who studies how adolescents interface with technology. So, to summarize, the talk was about why kids (at least in the US) spend all their time on MySpace and Facebook, and what it all means. It was very well presented (similar in style to Lawrence Lessig, who gives fantastic talks), and perhaps my interest stems from now having three kids; getting a perspective on how adolescents use online spaces to interact and communicate (as well as rebel and establish their own identitites) was quite enlightening.

So while they've been around for most of the summer, it's nice to have an official welcome for the new neighbors!

UPDATE: Link for talks.


Anonymous said...

Would be great to have a link to Erik's talk.

Anonymous said...

Talks are available here:

Anonymous said...

The intiative to do research between disciplines is most welcomed. And I agree some training in mathematics is very benificial. All the same, this goes the other way around. Doing research in issues related to social sciences without any knowledge in research methods, sociology, psychology, economics etc. is bound to have limited impact on these fields. Interdisciplinary does not mean that one discpline should prevail.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anonymous 3: I would agree that to do research in an area outside your main field, you have to get to know how that field works -- research standards, language, methodology, etc. (That's been my experience, for example, in coding theory.)

But my point was that mathematics (including statistics), and theoretical computer science, are languages that are essentially universal to all disciplines. As such, these disciplines themselves do have a special place. That's not saying that any discipline should "prevail" -- it's my opinion that these areas are fundamental across science in a way that's intrinsically different from other areas.