Institute adds up
Along with Robert Zimmer's December appointment as vice president
for research and Argonne National Laboratory came continued
responsibility for the Computation Institute, Chicago's year-old
initiative to foster teamwork between the computational sciences
and other disciplines. A joint effort of the University and
Argonne, the Computation Institute, or CI, fosters research
in the computational aspects of the physical, biological, and
social sciences, as well as the humanities and the arts, with
simulation, modeling, visualization, and data analysis.
the Max Mason distinguished service professor in mathematics,
has served as deputy provost since 1998. After earning his B.A.
from Brandeis University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard
University, he taught for two years at the U.S. Naval Academy,
joining the Chicago faculty in 1977. He has been a faculty member
at Harvard and the University of California-Berkeley and has
held visiting faculty positions at institutions in Israel, France,
Australia, Switzerland, and Italy.
is computation and how can it affect such a wide variety of
more appropriate word might be informatics, because one is studying
and understanding how to represent, store, analyze, and communicate
information. That goes well beyond what usually gets called
to mind when one thinks of computation, which is closely related
in people's minds to numerical calculation-which is much too
we're seeing with computation is that it's really become not
just an enabling technical tool but also an enabling conceptual
tool. Within a variety of disciplines it enables you to evaluate
different types of information, to ask different types of questions.
In that way it becomes a new mode of inquiry.
an institution like the University of Chicago, which has always
viewed itself as having the mission of focusing on different
modes of inquiry to understand fundamental problems, this becomes
something we should embrace.
do computational methods change the way we think about a subject
an empirical fact that computation enables one to understand
and reconceptualize certain parts of disciplines whose fundamental
problems are still being defined on the discipline's own terms.
If you are working in geophysics, you want to understand issues
related to the earth and its history and evolution and both
short- and long-term dynamics. That's a global problem in that
field, and it can be approached with certain sets of techniques
and modes of inquiry.
introduction of sophisticated computation changes the nature
of the questions you are able to answer. But the discipline
is still dealing with the overarching concerns that define it.
there a danger of losing sight of those overarching concerns?
could be a danger in becoming overly obsessed with technique
and not focused enough on problems. But I think that's an issue
that one confronts all the time in terms of developing techniques.
As you focus on a new set of techniques, it is easy to become
so enamored with the techniques that you forget that you really
need to be focused on a set of deep problems generated out of
their own natural interest. You don't want technical capacity
to drive what you are doing, to do things just because you can
the Computation Institute facing any criticism for applying
computation to areas such as the arts?
think that we should be rightly skeptical of anything that hasn't
been demonstrated to be successful. I have met almost no one
who doesn't believe that the Computation Institute is an important
thing for the University to do and that there are wide areas
of inquiry in the University for which this is very important.
Likewise, it would be very foolish to imagine that this has
to connect to every part of inquiry in the University.
have no desire to see it develop in any way that is not natural.
It is not a crusade; it is a response to evolving needs and
opportunities. There's no drive to do anything unnatural or
to push people in any direction.
does the Computation Institute differ from similar efforts at
are certainly places that have a greater historical emphasis
on computation as an activity within the university, and we
have been, as an institution, somewhat behind in this. I think
the Computation Institute offers us the possibility of articulating
a program for the University that involves the whole breadth
of the University-which is not something that other places have
done-and to do it in a way that exemplifies the distinctive
intellectual traditions here.
this kind of work done at the U of C before the Computation
Institute was created?
numbers of faculty have been involved in computational techniques
as they became natural modes of inquiry within their disciplines.
And certainly in the Physical Sciences Division there were significant
efforts by faculty members in these directions. But what generated
the model for the Computation Institute was the fact that in
a lot of cases there was a need to accumulate large, multidisciplinary
teams working together in a domain in which computation plays
a significant conceptual role, not just a technical role.
single largest project we've had in this direction is the Flash
Center [a joint effort of the University and Argonne that studies
thermonuclear flashes on the surfaces of compact stars] in which
people from astrophysics, physics, computer science, and mathematics
are involved. The Computation Institute was really founded with
two goals: bringing the strength of Argonne and the University
together in these domains and providing an umbrella for such
large, multidisciplinary projects.
will the Computation Institute benefit the University?
would say that computation is evolving into a mode of inquiry
that's already having a profound impact in physical sciences.
It's on the cusp of having an extraordinarily profound impact
on the biological sciences, and it has potential impact on social
and behavioral sciences. We have an opportunity to take our
particular intellectual culture and do this type of work very
well, so it offers us a great intellectual opportunity.
obstacles does the Institute face?
now we have no space. This is certainly an obstacle. It is also
not adequately funded to be successful. To some extent, both
of these questions are awaiting the outcome of the University-wide
committee report on computation that should be forthcoming this
spring, and we'll hope that at that time the University will
be able to lay out some plans to address these issues.
are the Institute's long-term and short-term goals?
long-term goals are to be the intellectual core and focus of
a diffused approach to computation as a mode of inquiry. Part
of that is, in a practical sense, generating and supporting
the center-type activities, where you have large, multidisciplinary
teams involved. Our short-term goals are to establish projects
of this nature which will then be exemplars of what we want
to do more generally.