The University of Chicago Magazine

April 1997

Top of his game

Told that a blind person would fail at what he set out to achieve, math pioneer Larry Wos won by learning how to beat the odds.

By Tim Andrew Obermiller

Photograph by Lloyd DeGrane

This year, cyberspacers and sci-fi fans alike celebrated the birth of HAL 9000, the conflicted computer who ran amok in Stanley Kubrick's movie classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on the novel by Arthur C. Clarke. As HAL tells his human programmers in the book, he became "operational" on January 12, 1997.

A good three months before HAL's fictional switch was turned on, an authentic milestone in the development of "thinking" computers occurred at Argonne National Laboratory, operated by the University of Chicago for the U.S. Department of Energy. On October 10, an RS/6000 processor produced--some use the term "creatively solved"--an answer to a problem known as the Robbins conjecture that had stumped many of mathematics' best minds for more than 60 years.

Computers beating chess masters like Garry Kasparov may draw bigger headlines, but solving the Robbins conjecture is a far bigger deal, says senior Argonne mathematician Larry Wos, AB'50, SM'54. In deciding which chess piece to move, a computer solves a single problem. The Argonne RS/6000-programmed with automated-reasoning principles Wos helped pioneer-used logic, strategy, and other reasoning tools to sort through millions of complex possibilities over an eight-day period before proclaiming its answer.

"It's a sign of power, of reasoning power," an excited Wos told the New York Times in December. He had reason to crow: Since he first became involved in the fledgling field in the early 1960s, Wos has struggled to explain to dubious colleagues and grant makers the purpose and potential of automated reasoning. "People kept asking me, are you contributing new results to science, to math? My answer had to be no. For years, we studied simple textbook problems that a sophomore in college could easily solve. Because if our program couldn't do those, how could we expect it to do new mathematics?

"In other words, if we're interested in track and we can't win a race against the high school kids, how the hell are we going to get on the Olympic team? And now we've finally reached that level."

It's typical for Wos to describe his work as though it were a competitive sport. Even more than he likes to win, "I despise failure," he states with the passion of a man who, with the odds often against him, has won far more than lost.

One testament to Larry Wos's success is that, of all the words one might use to describe him, "blind" seems among the least important. It's mostly the world, not Wos, that thinks his blindness matters much.

Sightless from birth, Wos credits his mother with helping him adapt to the handicap. "She didn't cater to my blindness, nor did she cater to my intelligence. She treated me like a kid. She let me run down the street because that's what other kids did. I have scars on my forehead to prove it."

Wos needed to be tough to get by in the poor, West Side Chicago neighborhood where he grew up in the 1930s. The family residence, shared with his mother and two sisters, was "the kind of cold-water flat described in those Studs Lonigan books. No bathtubs or hot water. Just rooms with walls and windows and not much else." His father, an alcoholic, skipped town when Wos was 6, so his mother worked in factories to support her children.

Wos tested as a genius at an early age. When he was only 7, his teachers wanted to promote him to the fifth grade, "but because I weighed only 34-and-a-quarter pounds, they were afraid that it just wasn't going to work out." Newspapers vied for exclusives on Chicago's "blind boy genius," but it seems the city reporters couldn't comprehend his true intelligence. One paper even rigged a "pathetic" photo of him molding a rabbit out of clay. Says Wos, "They didn't know or care what my real talents were."

The public schools he attended were for sighted children, with a homeroom and special services set up for blind students who came from around the city. Of his classmates at John Marshall High School, Wos says, "They didn't think of blind people as second-class citizens. But they didn't date them, either." Outside school, he encountered more extreme reactions. Wos remembers entering one neighborhood restaurant and being told by the owner, "We don't serve blind people here."

He recalls such memories, he says, not to incite sympathy but to help others who might face similar prejudices, "no matter where you go or at what level you succeed." Wos relates the story of a recent lunch with colleagues where a visitor blurted out, "Well, Wos. All things considered, at least you have your mathematics." For a man who deep-sea fishes, ranks as the best blind male bowler in the country, plays cards like a shark, and enjoys a deeply satisfying relationship with his wife of 42 years, Nancy, the comment was too ironic to resist. "I said to him, `Well, mathematics is not the most important thing to me. I find lovemaking far more enjoyable than mathematics. But I'm not sure the term is among your definitions.'" The man stammered, unable to muster a response.

In fact, Wos will happily tell you, he does enjoy lovemaking more than mathematics, but math isn't bad. Wos wants to experience all aspects of his life as a sensual experience--whether discovering an "honest-to-goodness" French bakery with real croissants ("the kind you can squeeze and they fall apart"), being blown away by a Gene Krupa drum solo on his stereo, or "finding a proof that's one step shorter than the one we published."

For Wos, work and play are so enmeshed as to be virtually indistinguishable. In a Festschrift honoring Wos to be published this summer by MIT Press, his former student, Robert Veroff, a computer-science professor at the University of New Mexico, writes that "Larry likes to say that his emphasis on the use of strategy in automated reasoning was learned at the high-stakes poker table.

"Possibly also learned at the poker table," Veroff adds, "is Larry's understanding of human nature. His no-nonsense assessments are on target far more than most people care to admit."

Wos speculates that his irrepressible nature may simply be a function of brain chemistry, blessing him with high endorphin levels that allow him to revel in a childlike state of creativity, pleasure, and wonder. "I never grew up," he admits proudly. [Follow link below to continue story.]

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