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All research depends upon computer science
Published: 26.09.2007    Last updated: 09.10.2007
Claude R. Olsen
Without computer science, scientific progress would only inch along. Mathematics is useless in understanding complicated phenomena such as climate change or the Internet. Algorithms will revolutionise science, believes Professor Bernard Chazelle.

"Computing will be the most disruptive scientific paradigm since quantum mechanics" predicted Professor Bernard Chazelle in 2006. (Photo: Princeton University)

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.

-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 complicated things.

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 business.
-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


An algorithm is a mathematical rule with a finite number of operations for solving a given problem, and plays a fundamental role in connection with computer-aided problem solving. (Source: Caplex)

Further information:

Bernard Chazelle

The Algorithm: Idiom of Modern Science 
(short version available)

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