A few months ago, I got a surprise call from Subra Suresh, director of the National Science Foundation, who told me I was going to share this year’s Alan T. Waterman Award with Robert Wood of Harvard. (At first I assumed it was a telemarketing call, since pretty much no one calls my office phone; I use my iPhone exclusively and have trouble even operating my desk phone.) Dr. Suresh explained that this was the first time the Waterman would ever be awarded to two people the same year, but that the committee was unanimous in supporting both me and Rob. Looking up my co-winner, I quickly learned that Rob was a leader in the field of robot bees (see here for video)—and that his work, despite having obvious military applications, had been singled out by Sean Hannity as the latter’s #1 example of government waste (!). That fact, alone, made me deeply honored to share the award with Rob, and eager to meet him in person.
Happily, I finally got to do that this past Thursday, at the Waterman award ceremony in Washington DC. The festivities started in the morning, with talks by me and Rob to the National Science Board. (I just performed my usual shtick. I was hoping Rob would bring some actual RoboBees, but he said he no longer does that due to an unfortunate run-in with airport security.) Then, after lunch and meetings at the NSF, it was back to the hotel to change into a tux, an item I’d never worn before in my life (not even at my wedding). Fortunately, my dad was there to help me insert the cufflinks and buttons, a task much more complicated than anything I was allegedly getting the award for. Then Dana and I were picked up by a limo, to begin the arduous mile-long journey from Dupont Circle to the State Department for the awards dinner.
Besides me and Rob, there were three other awardees that night:
- Leon Lederman, the 89-year-old Nobel physicist whose popular book (The God Particle) I enjoyed as a kid, received the Vannevar Bush Award.
- Lawrence Krauss, physicist and popular science writer, and National Public Radio’s science desk shared the National Science Board Public Service Award. Some readers of science blogs might recognize Lawrence Krauss from his recent brouhaha over literally nothing with the philosopher of science David Albert. (For whatever it’s worth, I have little to add to Sean Carroll’s diplomatic yet magisterial summary of the issues over on Cosmic Variance.)
Speaking of diplomacy, the awards dinner was held in the “diplomatic reception rooms” on the top floor of the State Department’s Harry S. Truman Building. These were pretty awesome rooms: full of original portraits of George Washington, Ben Franklin, etc., as well as antique furniture pieces like a desk that Thomas Jefferson allegedly used while writing the Declaration of Independence. I could easily eat dinner there on a regular basis.
Carl Wieman, the Nobel physicist and Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, read out a congratulatory message from President Obama. I feel certain the President remembered I was the same dude he shook hands with a while back.
Anyway, cutting past dinner and dessert, here was my short acceptance speech:
Thanks for this honor, and huge congratulations to my co-winners, wherever in the alphabet they might lie [a reference to my getting called up before Rob Wood, simply because Aaronson<Wood lexicographically]. I like to describe my research, on the limits of quantum computers, as the study of what we can’t do with computers we don’t have. Why would I or anyone else study such a bizarre thing? Mostly because we’re inspired by history. In the 1930s, before electronic computers even existed, a few people like Alan Turing were already trying to understand mathematically what such devices would or wouldn’t be able to do. Their work ultimately made possible the information age. Today, we don’t know exactly where curiosity about (say) quantum computers or the P versus NP question is going to lead, but I’m grateful to live in a country that’s able to support this kind of thing. I thank the NSF and the Obama administration for supporting basic science even in difficult times. I thank Subra Suresh (my former dean at MIT), and my phenomenal program officer Dmitry Maslov. I thank the teachers and mentors to whom I owe almost everything, including Chris Lynch, Bart Selman, Avi Wigderson, and Umesh Vazirani. I thank my wonderful colleagues at MIT—including my department head Anantha Chandrakasan, who’s here now—and my students and postdocs. I thank my collaborators, and the entire theory of computing and quantum information communities, which I’m so proud to be part of. I thank my students in 6.045 for understanding why I had to miss class today. Most of all, I thank four people who are here with me now—my mom, dad, and my brother David, who’ve always believed in me, whether justified or not, and my wife, Dana Moshkovitz Aaronson, who’s enriched my life ever since she came into it three years ago. Thank you.
The next day, I had the privilege of giving a quantum computing talk to more than 100 students at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in nearby Alexandria, VA. Visiting TJ had special meaning for me, since while I was suffering through high school, TJ was my “dream school”: I wished my parents lived in the DC area so that I could go there. I told the TJ students never to forget just how good they had it. (To this day, when I meet fellow American-raised scientists, and they tell me they’re surprised I had such an unhappy time in high school, since they themselves had a great time, I always ask them which high school they went to. In a large fraction of cases, the answer turns out to be TJ—and when it isn’t, it’s often the Bronx High School of Science or another similar place.) As should surprise no one, the students had vastly more detailed questions about my talk than did the National Science Board (for example, they wanted to know whether I thought progress in group theory would lead to new quantum algorithms).
Without doubt, the most surreal aspect of this trip was the contrast between what was going on in my “real” and “virtual” lives. Again and again, I’d be shaking hands with the Undersecretary of Defense, Director of the National Institute of Prestigiousness, etc. etc., and warmly accepting these fine people’s congratulations. Then I’d sneak away for a minute to moderate my blog comments on my iPhone, where I’d invariably find a fresh round of insults about my “deeply ignorant lesser brain” from entanglement denier Joy Christian.
Perhaps the funniest contrast had to do with a MathOverflow question that I posted just before I left for DC, and which was quickly answered, just as I had hoped. During the limo ride back from the dinner, I got the following polite inquiry from a blog commenter calling himself “Mike”:
Hey Scott, I’m wondering how you got the courage to post that question on [MathOverflow]. In truth it wasn’t that hard of a question and if you have trouble solving it then…well, no offense, but you see what I mean. Reputation matters.
As I contemplated Mike’s question, a profound sense of peace came over me. Probably for the first time in my life, I realized just how lucky I really am. I’m lucky that I feel free to ask naïve, simpleminded questions, toss out speculations, and most importantly, admit when I don’t know something or made a mistake, without worrying too much about whether those actions will make me look foolish before the “Mikes” of the world. If I want to work on a problem myself, I can do that; if I prefer giving the problem out to others, I can do that as well. Let Mike, with his greater wisdom, sit in judgment of me for my failure to see all the answers that no doubt are obvious to him. I don’t mind. In science, like in everything else, I’ll continue being an unabashed doofus—partly because it seems to work OK, but mostly just because it’s the only way I know.
Thanks so much to all of you for your support.