Sunday, February 17, 2008

On Valiant

I was avoiding posting on Les Valiant's EATCS award and the obvious question about the somewhat odd fact that he hasn't yet been given his Turing Award yet because of the amazingly obvious bias I would have (such as being on the same faculty with him). But now that it's shown up on the complexity blog, I feel unrestricted.

From my standpoint, Les is an "old-school" scientist. He spends a long time thinking very deeply about difficult problems, trying to come up with results or frameworks that will fundamentally change how we think about something. And as the list of his results show (see the complexity blog post and comments; whatever you think Les has done, he's done even more than that), he's been amazingly successful at it; he's had several once-in-a-lifetime results. As part of his style, he doesn't care about his paper count or h-index. This type of science is incredibly risky, and not for everyone. But it's a remarkable example of what's possible.


Anonymous said...

I agree. Even among other giants of computer science Valiant is clearly in a league of his own.
I'm sure the oversight with the Turing award will be corrected sooner or later.

Anonymous said...

I am a graduate student and I must say that Valiant is a real inspiration to me. I've always felt like my abilities and interests do not mesh very well with the common approach to research in CS (i.e., publishing a large number of difficult, but mostly technical results).

What I love about Valiant's work (as well as some others like Micali or Aaronson for example) is that it seems more "conceptual/philosophical" in nature. Like Michael said, this kind of work is trying to fundamentally alter the way we view, and most importantly, understand things.

Seems to me like this is common in say theoretical physics (since they are trying to "understand the world") but very rare in CS. Perhaps with the realization that CS is a "computational lens" through which to see the world, things will change a bit.

In any case, since I am more interested in (and better at) producing "conceptual" rather than technical results, I often wonder whether I will be able to pursue a successful research career in CS. The recognition of Valiant's work gives me some indication that this may be possible.