At last night’s FOCS business meeting, there was a panel discussion on how to get the public excited about theoretical computer science. Unfortunately I missed it — I’m skipping FOCS for the first time in years — so I’m grateful to Rocco Servedio for this post about the discussion and to Dave Bacon for this one.
The obvious question is, why has there been so little success at popularizing theoretical computer science? Here I’d like to propose an answer to this question: because no one in human history has ever successfully popularized any field of science.
“But that’s absurd!” you interject. “What about Stephen Hawking, or Richard Dawkins, or Carl Sagan, or Richard Feynman, or Isaac Asimov, or Bertrand Russell?”
My response is simple. These people are not popularizers. They are prophets.
Like Moses descending from Sinai, the scientific prophet emerges from the clouds of Platonic heaven with a vision for the huddled throng below: that yea, though our lives may be fleeting and our bodies frail, through reason we shall know the mind of God. We are apes with telescopes, star-stuff pondering the stars.
Often, as in the cases of Hawking and Feynman, the prophet’s own life is central to the vision. The prophet teaches by example, showing us that no physical impediment is too great to overcome, that the world is full of solvable mysteries, that Nature cannot be fooled.
The prophet does not confine himself to his “area of expertise,” any more than Moses limited himself to shepherding regulations or Jesus to carpentry tips. He draws on his field for illustration, to be sure, but his real interest is life itself. He never hesitates to philosophize or moralize, even if only to tell his listeners that philosophers and moralists are idiots.
The scientific prophet presents humanity with a choice: will we persist in our petty squabbles and infantile delusions, Neanderthals with computers and ICBM’s? Or will we create a better world, one worthy of reasoning beings?
Even when the prophet exhorts us to reason, skepticism, and empiricism, he does so by hijacking a delivery system that is thousands of years old. And that is why he succeeds.
Theoretical computer science will capture the public’s imagination when, and only when, it produces a prophet.