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image: Campus NewsComputation 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.

PHOTO:  Robert Zimmer in the Crerar computer lab.Zimmer, 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.

What is computation and how can it affect such a wide variety of disciplines?

A 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 limited.

What 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.

For 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.

How do computational methods change the way we think about a subject or discipline?

It's 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.

The 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.

Is there a danger of losing sight of those overarching concerns?

There 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 do them.

Is the Computation Institute facing any criticism for applying computation to areas such as the arts?

I 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.

I 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.

How does the Computation Institute differ from similar efforts at other schools?

There 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.

Was this kind of work done at the U of C before the Computation Institute was created?

Significant 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.

The 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.

How will the Computation Institute benefit the University?

I 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.

What obstacles does the Institute face?

Right 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.

What are the Institute's long-term and short-term goals?

The 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.


 APRIL 2001

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All that jazz
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Bound to change

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