During the last week of September, 200 young researchers from all over the world met with 40 laureates of the most prestigious awards in computer science and mathematics at the first Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF) in Heidelberg, Germany.
The HLF was modeled after the famous Lindau Nobel Laureate meetings, held annually since 1951 as a way for young researchers to meet with Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry, medicine, and economics.
HLF chair Klaus Tschira said his great inspiration to initiate the Forum was that, "Unfortunately, there is not a Nobel Prize for mathematics and for computer science, but, young researchers in these fields would likewise benefit just as much from early contact with influential members of their fields."
The five days of HLF were filled with plenary talks, panel discussions, workshops, and social events. During that time, young researchers enthusiastically exchanged ideas, both with each other and with laureates of the ACM A.M. Turing Award and the Rolf Nevanlinna Prize (a total of 30 recipients of these awards were present), the Fields Medal and the Abel Prize (together 10 award recipients present).
Nikolai Gavrin, a postdoc also working at Microsoft Research, said, "By talking with the laureates you can start to draw the big picture: what are the interesting areas of research? The laureates did something wonderful, but it is already done, so you have to find something new."
All the young researchers I spoke with liked the fact that HLF combined computer science and mathematics. Johan Nielsen from Denmark, a postdoc at the University of Ulm, Germany, told me, "My interest is very broad, both in math and in computer science. Now I am working on error correcting codes, but I will not be confined to this for the rest of my career. Therefore I find it important to gain inspiration from other fields."
One of the three female Turing Award recipients was present: Shafi Goldwasser (Turing Award 2012). The Fields Medal and the Abel Prize are still waiting for their first female recipients, but if the number of women at the HLF is a good indicator (54 out of 200 young scientists), that should change in the near future. Ruzica Piskac, an assistant professor in the computer science department of Yale University, said she is inspired by the work of the other female Turing Award recipients, Barbara Liskov and Frances Allen. "They should be a motivation for girls to do computer science. Computer science is a very cool field. We are not geeks who want to be alone and write code; it’s a very interactive science. For me it helps to talk with laureates about my own lines of thinking. As they have much more experience, they can give you advice and motivation."
Phaedra Mohammed, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago, described the HLF as "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet all these great laureates. You can’t buy this. And I also enjoy that I can come in contact with more women computer scientists."
Most young researchers agreed that the event was well-organized and a great experience. Asked what could be improved, Ufuoma Bright Ighoroje, a Ph.D. candidate at Saarland University, Germany, said, "some talks were too technical. I also would like to hear a bit more about the personal and working lives of the laureates. How did they achieve what they have achieved? How did they have to struggle? And also a bit more about practical applications."
The Heidelberg Laureate Forum was as novel for the laureates as it was for the young researchers. Leslie Valiant (Turing Award 2010) said, "I like meetings that are very broadly based, like this one. I get a lot out of them. I believe in having a wide world view, even if what you do yourself at any time is specialized. Understanding the broader context does influence my thinking."
Richard Karp (Turing Award 1985) said during his presentation that he is inspired by the questions of the young scientists. "The new generation will be much more successful in breaking the borders between mathematics and computer science. Generally, I see a broadening of theoretical computer science inspired by other areas."
Frederick Brooks (Turing Award 1999) was one of many laureates asked by some of the young researchers about how to become a laureate. "My answer is: don’t worry about recognition, worry about doing a good job. Maximum fun comes from creating new things. Enjoy that, and the recognition will take care of itself." At the age of 82, he is still teaching young scientists. "When people ask me why, I say, ‘what could I do that is more fun than this?’ More of my friends at my age rust out, rather than burn out. I’d rather burn out."
Fields Medal recipient Cédric Villani, at 39 the youngest attending laureate, offered another good reason for laureates to attend the meeting: "By explaining your research, you yourself understand better what you are doing. When you explain certain things to a general audience, it is not about going deeper and deeper into details; to the contrary, it means getting upwards to the global view. In such a way, large-scale patterns appear, so you see what the stakes are, what are the grand goals. These things can be quite important and mind-changing."
The Heidelberg Laureate Forum is to be held annually, in the last week of September. Many of the laureates at the first HLF contributed greatly to turning the computer into a practical tool for everybody − a true third revolution in information transfer, after the invention of writing and of the printing press. Now it’s up to the young generation of computer scientists to take this revolution to the next level. As undergraduate student Alina Matyukhina from the Donetsk National University in Ukraine said, "I believe in a time when computers are present in every part of everyday life."
Bennie Mols is a science and technology writer based in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
Selected Comments by Laureates:
Frederick Brooks (Turing Award 1999): "In software engineering, the essential problems are people problems."
Vint Cerf (Turing Award 2004): "If I take back home at least one good idea for future research, than a meeting has been a big success. And that is definitely the case for the first Heidelberg Laureate Forum. For me this one good idea is: how can we accomplish that all the digital information that we produce now can still be read in a few hundred years?"
Edward Feigenbaum (Turing Award 1994): "My advice to young scientists is: go somewhere where little people are working. Try to find new frontiers. Don’t do incremental science."
William Kahan (Turing Award 1989): "The young generation faces completely different career challenges than we had when we were young."
Curtis McMullen (Fields Medal 1998): "Any mathematical structure that can be manipulated by the human mind can also be manipulated by a computer."
Vladimir Voevodsky (Fields Medal 2002): "I find it a great idea to have more contact between mathematics and computer science."
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