New sciences such as biology, ecology, genetics, neuroscience and
networks cannot be explained with mathematical formulas the way physics
can. They are far more complex and far less orderly than physics.
"Computing will be the most disruptive scientific paradigm since
quantum mechanics" predicted Professor Bernard Chazelle in 2006.
(Photo: Princeton University)
-When you have a complex system, for example a population of
bacteria or of people, with very complex relationships, then the
standard formulas of mathematics don't work. Thus we need algorithms,
says Professor Bernard Chazelle of Princeton University in New
Jersey. He is coming to Norway to present his keynote lecture at the
VERDIKT programme conference on 29 October.
An algorithm is a precise description of a series of operations
to be performed in order to solve a specific type of problem. Professor
Chazelle invokes literary similes to illustrate the difference between
mathematical formulas and algorithms.
-Mathematical formulas are like short poems – or like one-liners.
Very tiny, little, really powerful sentences. Algorithms can be like
Russian novels. They are very large, complex; they do a lot of
What mathematics was to the 20th century, computer science
(especially algorithms) will be to the 21st, he believes. Mathematics
helped to spawn breakthroughs in the natural sciences of physics,
chemistry, meteorology and cosmology in the 1900s. Professor Chazelle
expects algorithms to do the same for science in fields such as climate
change and genetic mapping – examples of complicated systems that
cannot be dealt with using standard mathematics.
The case of Google illustrates the limitations of traditional
mathematics. With all its services on the Internet, Google is a company
whose content is very unstructured and in constant flux. In cases like
this, one cannot simply apply mathematical formulas.
-What makes Google special is their algorithm. Their algorithm is
secret. It is very clever, and it is better than any other
competitor’s. People prefer Google not for its speed, since Microsoft
and Yahoo are just as fast, but because it tends to give them the
answer they are looking for better, says the Professor.
-One might think that Google works better because the company has
better computers, but this is not the case, he says. Google uses
standard computers, tens of thousands of them. Anybody with enough
money can buy just as many.
-Look at Microsoft. They can afford as many smart people as they
want, and yet they have tried for years to overtake Google. That's one
of their obsessions. So far they have failed, which is remarkable. It’s
not a matter of power, it’s one of cleverness, he continues.
Professor Chazelle says there could be some brilliant student
in Oslo right now who could come up with a new algorithm for doing
something and that will cause a revolution, maybe drive Google out of
-This is not entirely impossible. You look at the story of Skype. You know, in many stories the only question is brainpower.
Indispensable for researchers
He believes researchers, regardless of their focus, must understand just how fundamental computer science is to their field.
-Without knowing where and how computer science has enabled their work,
scientists are less able to understand where their greatest progress
can be made, he explains.
Every advance in web search, for instance,
benefits bioinformatics. Progress in visualisation makes
large-scale data analysis possible. Progress on sensor networks enables
the collection of critical data.
Motivating the students
-People think computer science is sitting at your desk all day and
writing lines of code or programs to do boring things like processing
your Amazon.com order. At the same time that we, the professionals,
have never been more excited about our field, the students get less and
less excited - at least in the USA, he laments.
He thinks that education is partly to blame. Computer technology is
viewed as a given, an attitude which he says has inspired him to
put computer science in a wider context.
-It is very important to communicate this excitement and have a
debate about it. If you look at physicists, biologists, they give
wonderful lectures about what is so exciting and they really know how
to engage and motivate people.
He says computer scientists do not seem to feel the need to
tell people how exciting their field is, perhaps due to its continual
technological breakthroughs: word processing in the 1970s, video games
in the 1980s, the Internet in the 1990s.
Professor Chazelle now often collaborates with physicists and
biologists on his lectures. Biologists have felt a great need for
computer science and have asked for it to be included in the basic
biology curriculum. Students at Princeton University now study
biology and computer science concurrently.
A new revolution
Professor Chazelle predicts a revolution in this century on the magnitude of mathematics in the last century – with one caveat.
He notes that the most important task in mathematics is to understand itself.
-Most of the theories in mathematics make statements on other parts of
mathematics. Most of mathematics is inward-looking, while computer
science is primarily oriented toward problem solving, be it airline
scheduling, climate change or web search. My prediction will not come
to pass if this problem is not addressed. Computer scientists need to
start studying algorithms for their own sake and not only to solve
problems, he warns.
Translated by: Darren McKellep/Victoria Coleman