The Bloggour hath returneth

Picture this: it’s my first visit to Cambridge — Ground Zero of the scientific revolution, a place that’s probably contributed more to human knowledge than any other on Earth. Within walking distance are the original manuscripts of Newton’s Principia; the halls where Darwin, Maxwell, and Russell dined as undergraduates; the Cavendish Laboratory where Rutherford bombarded nuclei and Crick and Watson unravelled nucleic acids; and architecture dating back to the 1200’s, much of it among the finest in Europe. I ought to be taking in the splendor (sorry, “splendour”) by day, and blogging about it by night.

So where have I been? Hunkered in an office, trying to finish a paper with Greg Kuperberg about QMA versus QCMA in time for the Complexity’06 submission deadline. Happily, by Saturday it had become obvious that, try though we might, we weren’t gonna make it. So I put it off till the next conference, and contented myself with submitting two papers to this year’s Complexity conference instead of three. As Douglas Adams, another Cambridge alum, put it: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

So what can I tell you about Cambridge? First of all, when people refer to the various “colleges” — King’s, Trinity, and so on — they’re not just being eccentric and British. These colleges actually exist. Each one is basically a walled-off compound, with a few grand-looking entrances that get locked at night, thereby making Cambridge even harder to navigate than the average campus. (It doesn’t help that the streets change names constantly: St. John’s becomes Trinity becomes King’s Parade becomes Trumpington Street within a couple of blocks.)

I’m staying at King’s, pictured below:

Last week my host at King’s, Artur Ekert, invited me to High Table. For you non-Oxbridge doofuses, “High Table” is a fancy dinner at which people still wear robes, non-ironically as far as I could tell. Or rather, Fellows must wear robes when dining at their own college, though not when dining at a different college. (Makes sense, huh?) Afterwards, the Fellows and their guests retire to another room for wine, cheese, and academic gossip.

All these dining rooms are lined with portraits of illustrious King’s alumni from centuries past — but amazingly, there’s still no portrait of the greatest King’s man of all time. Who was it? Let me give you a few hints. He proved the unsolvability of the Entscheidungsproblem. He was “queer” in more than one way. He had a Machine and a Test named after him. He may have played a bigger role than Churchill in winning the Second World War.

To his great credit, Artur told me that he almost threatened to resign his Fellowship if no portrait of Alan Mathison Turing F.R.S. was hung in the halls. The relevant authorities have promised to rectify the situation, though they haven’t done so yet. (Admittedly, the computer help center at King’s is called the “Turing Centre.” One imagines Turing’s ghost managing the DHCP servers, so that the real scholars can get on with their work.)

To my mind, the central question is this: did Cambridge become the world’s scientific superpower for 300 years in spite of all this idiosyncratic formality, or because of it? I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, the amount of red tape here, and the importance attached to one’s status, is like something out of Victorian England (oh, wait…). Fellows and their guests are allowed to walk on the grass; all others are not. Even though there’s an ethernet jack right in my room, I wasn’t allowed to use it, being merely a visitor. (After I complained, Artur was kind enough to give me his IP address.)

On the other hand, I like High Table and similar traditions. I like how they acknowledge and celebrate something that’s always been obvious to me: that being an academic isn’t a job like other jobs, but a way of life. This doesn’t necessarily mean that academics have no lives; what it means is that they don’t distinguish between work and life the way most people do.

Have you ever been to one of those roadside diners where you can pick an entree plus two sides, but a few of the entrees are marked “complete,” meaning you don’t get any sides with them? Well, at Cambridge they’ve understood for centuries that academia is one of life’s complete entrees. Not that a Cambridge man would know anything about roadside diners.

15 Responses to “The Bloggour hath returneth”

  1. Miss HT Psych Says:

    Sounds like you’re having a great time in England. I am so very jealous… that’s one of the few places on earth that I desperately want to go to. One day, one day (Miss HT rubs her hands together, a la Mr. Burns)…

    You know, I think a lot of the “old boys schools” in Canada (U of T, Queen’s and U.W.O.) were built on a similar format as those in England. I had the prvilage of going to one of them for my undergrad. Western had 3 “colleges” – King’s, Brescia and Huron… complete with the limestone, bell towers, ivy and generally magnificent and impressive (READ: old) looking architecture.

    Once again, very jealous. So, since I have to live vicariously through you…. GET OUT AND ENJOY YOURSELF!!!!! :)

  2. Matt Says:

    I think the Oxbridge environment is good for academics because the Colleges basically look after you almost entirely if you want it to. You don’t have to remember to cook or organize a social life for yourself. The college system means that you meet lots of academics from other departments without much effort. It’s one of the few places where they realize that they employ academics to do research, and the more time they give them to do that, as opposed to worrying about mundane things, the better value for money they will get.

    On the other hand, it’s not for everyone. The atmosphere can be a bit stifling and some of the traditions are obviously a bit silly.

    My big complaint is that the teaching sucks big time (with the exception of a few inspired lecturers), which makes me wonder why so many students want to go there as undergrads. If you care about giving undergrads a stimulating educational experience, rather than a tooth and nail competitive battle to the death, then Oxbridge is not the place to do that. Of course, if you are so research focussed that you regard teaching as a necessary evil rather than an important part of the job then you may not care about this.

  3. Matt Says:

    By the way, Rutherford did almost all his important experiments at McGill and Manchester, prior to taking a chair at Cambridge. This illustrates another Cambridge issue: they generally like to hire famous people after they’ve done all their interesting work rather than taking chances on young people. Of course, there are a couple of well known US universities that also display this phenomenon, but Cambridge has been doing it consistently since the early 1900s!

  4. Mistress of Mathematics Says:

    Hi Scott, hope you are enjoying your stay in Cambridge.

    It’s interesting to see that although there are other universities as old or even older than Oxbridge in Europe, namely University of Bologna in Italy and University of Paris in France, they do not seem to have the eccentricities of Oxbridge. Why? I know in France, “Universities” are not as prestigious as “Grands Ecole”, so people who would go to Oxbridge in England, would go to X(polytechnic) instead…but what about Italy? Why did French establish a different system for educating the elites?

    Anyways, I hope you enjoy the stay while I get locked in a bit chilly (-17 Celsius) Canadian winter.

    Kelly :-)

  5. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    It is a stretch to say that Alan Turing did more to win World War II than Churchill did. Turing didn’t even lead the Enigma project, although he did valuably contribute.

    Everything else you say is true (as far as I know).

  6. Scott Says:

    Kelly and Matt: Thanks for the comments!

    Miss HT: Don’t worry, I’ve been airing myself out a bit more. When you do get here, I’d do London first — especially Westminster Abbey and the Imperial War Museum (which was Churchill’s command center in WWII). Places on my still-to-see list include Down House (where Darwin lived for 40 years) and Bletchley Park (where Turing et al. broke Enigma).

  7. Scott Says:

    Greg: You could only find one thing to disagree with? That must be a record. :-)

    I did say that Turing may have played a bigger role than Churchill. Of course, the question is ill-defined, since we don’t know what would’ve happened were either Turing or Churchill removed from the picture.

    But we do know two things. First, Turing was responsible for a factor ~26 speedup of the Bombes, without which the decoding effort would have been too slow to be useful. (This was one constant-factor speedup that mattered!)

    And second, Churchill himself saw the decrypts as having overwhelming importance: “Give them everything they want with extreme priority. I want to see this action this very day.”

    Anyway, I’ve just come across a fascinating talk called The Influence of ULTRA in the Second World War by Sir Harry Hinsley, who actually worked with Turing at Bletchley Park.

    “My own conclusion is that [the decrypts] shortened the war by not less that two years and probably by four years – that is the war in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and Europe.”

    (As Hinsley later admitted, this estimate ignores the atomic bomb.)

  8. Anonymous Says:

    Are there any computer scientists working today that are scary smart like Turing?

  9. Scott Says:

    “Are there any computer scientists working today that are scary smart like Turing?”

    No. We’re all a bunch of doofuses.

  10. nic Says:

    There are also a collection of Alan turing’s notebooks and letters that you can arrange to view in the kings college library archives. You should email them to ask about it (but don’t forget to use ‘ch’ instead of ‘x’).

  11. scott Says:

    > (but don’t forget to use ‘ch’
    > instead of ‘x’).

    Huh?

  12. aram harrow Says:

    presumably you shouldn’t ask for permission to see “the college arxivs.”

    on a side note, do you know how significant the polish contributions to cracking enigma were?

  13. Christine Says:

    Yes, I want to know about the Polish contributions too! I heard it couldn’t have happened without them…

  14. scott Says:

    Aram: Thanks! I should’ve got that one.

  15. scott Says:

    Aram and Christine: The Polish contributions were essential, as discussed in Hinsley’s essay as well as Hodges’ biography. In oversimplified CS terms, the Poles formulated the Enigma-cracking problem; all Turing did is give an efficient algorithm for solving it. :)