Berkeley Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences

When the 2000 Nobel Prizes were announced, a New York Times article highlighted a common theme of the science prizes. The physics prize had gone to three scientists who invented microelectronic chips and other computer components. The chemistry prize had been awarded to researchers who enabled plastic to conduct electricity, a technology that could enable foldable low-energy video displays, and the physiology prize had gone to researchers who clarified an aspect of how the brain transmits information. "There is no Nobel Prize for computer science. But obliquely and perhaps unconsciously, the judges were using the tools at their disposal to recognize how formidable the notion of information has become, pervading not just the technologies we devise but the way we think about ourselves," George Johnson wrote.

To four theoretical computer science professors at Berkeley, the article was a public affirmation of a vision they had recently put forth in a joint research proposal. "We saw computation as a kind of lens through which to view the world, and we felt that this viewpoint would be come increasingly important in the 21st century" says Umesh Vazirani, one of the four.

Independently, each had been using ideas from computation to give a new perspective on a major research challenge in another discipline. Vazirani was exploring the power and limitations of a new model of computation based on quantum physics. Christos Papadimitriou was combining concepts from computation and economics. Alistair Sinclair was using computation to gain a new perspective on models from statistical physics, and Richard Karp was using tools from computation to understand biological systems (see Exploring Protein Networks). "People have worked for a long time on problems generated by other sciences, but this is a little different," says Sinclair. "We're not just taking some application and coming up with an algorithm for it. We're getting at something deeper: looking at a natural process or mechanism from a computational viewpoint gives a completely different perspective."

The goal of the research proposal, subsequently funded by the NSF and DARPA, was to build on this theme. In 2002, the researchers convened an unusual multidisciplinary conference that showcased the role of computation in physics, economics, and biology, and sketched a bold research agenda for the future, an effort that has continued to gain momentum. "We believe computer science can transform in a very profound way how other disciplines are going about their business," Papadimitriou says. "That is our rallying cry."