Thursday, May 3, 2012

Applying the "Computational Lens"

A colleague has brought to my attention an announcement of the Simons Foundation making a  $60 million grant to establish the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at U.C. Berkeley. The institute will host an interdisciplinary array of scientists exploring the mathematical foundations of computer science to attack problems in fields as diverse as health care, astrophysics, genetics and economics; underscoring the growing influence of computer science on the physical and social sciences.
   An article in the New York Times says that, "Part science and part engineering, computer science has long been viewed warily by scientists in other disciplines. But that is changing, not only because the computer has become the standard scientific instrument but also because “computational thinking” offers new ways to analyze the vast amounts of data now accessible to scientists. This new approach — what researchers call the “algorithmic” or “computational” lens — is transforming science in much the way the microscope and telescope did. When computer scientists train their sights on other disciplines, said Christos H. Papadimitriou, a Berkeley computer scientist who will help manage the institute, “truths come out that wouldn’t have come out otherwise.
   I recently watched a BBC documentary called "The Joy of Stats," by the enthusiastic Professor Hans Rosling. This documentary shows that the application of computer science and statistics to the massive amounts of data available to us today can transform our understanding of the world and it resonated well with the the New York Times article. You can watch the BBC doco on the BBC iPlayer (if you're in the UK) and it is on YouTube.