Time Chunks And Theory Nuggets
Making theory more accesible for everyone
Jeffrey Kluger is the author of a number of books, including Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (And How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple). Perhaps we can make complexity theory into simplexity theory, which would be great.
Today I wonder why computer science—not just theory—is nowhere to be seen in his recent Time Life book on The Top 100 New Scientific Discoveries of 2010.
The topics Kluger includes, as editor, in this book are all called “Fascinating, Unbelievable, and Mind-Expanding Stories.” That actually is the subtitle of the book. The sections are on Cosmology and Physics and Biology and , but nothing is called computer science. Nothing is called mathematics either, so perhaps we should not be too upset.
Even worse, many computer science advances are in the book, but they are labeled as contributions of other disciplines.
The Time Book
Kluger really tries to make his pieces accessible. Let’s call them chunks. Here is a sample:
Physics always wants to come out and play. Just when the most technical of sciences become impossibly arcane, it goes goofy on you. That happened in big way when a team of researchers announced in the Journal Nature that they mastered a new way to levitate physical objects
The title, story and picture are pretty exciting and fun to read. I think we need something like this for theory, and perhaps for computing more generally.
Salil Vadhan to the rescue. He has been working hard for the last few years to create nuggets for NSF. A nugget in the sense of NSF, the National Science Foundation, is by definition a cool picture with a cool description. A nugget should be able to inform non-experts, not be too misleading to experts, and generate excitement. The main use of nuggets by NSF seems to be internal: to help make the case that an area, in this case theory, is making important contributions to their mission.
Salil is the lead on this project, which has been underway since 2008, and he has been helped by many others. The initial organizing committee comprised Bernard Chazelle, Anna Karlin, Richard Ladner, Salil, and myself. See here for details on the project. You will immediately see that contributions have been made by many hard-working theorists. Elaine Park is working on the actual pictures for the project, which may be as important as the words that describe each nugget. The plan is that the nuggets will become posters and go on the walls of CCF—the part of NSF that funds most of theory. Hopefully, the posters will help NSF, and help the entire field. If you have any ideas or wish to help please go to the home site and get involved. Salil would love any additional help.
Here is a sample nugget that is still being worked on:
Computing as a Commodity: Distributed Computing over the Global Internet
Imagine an Internet that automatically and securely carries out complex computational tasks for geographically dispersed users, serves their rich personalized data requests, and provides seamless group communication
Chunks vs Nuggets
One difference between chunks and nuggets is pretty clear—just recall the titles:
- Levitation Achieved—Really
- Computing as a Commodity: Distributed Computing over the Global Internet
Chunks are written for lay people, for maximum impact, and are fun to read. Nuggets are written for technical people. They do not have anywhere near the impact or the fun factor of a chunk. It seems to me that there are two possible responses.
1. Who cares? Our nuggets are meant to inform technical managers at NSF, and so they should be serious, have real content, and not be fun to read.
Another response is:
2. We care. Perhaps our nuggets should not only inform technical managers at NSF, but should also have the punch of a chunk—OK I could not resist. If our nuggets did look more like chunks there might be several positive outcomes. They might get included in the next Time Book on innovations for 2011. They might be used to reach a much wider audience, which could include other policy makers as well as general lay people.
One answer is that we could create both nuggets and chunks: nuggets go to NSF and chunks are more popular versions of them. Here is an attempt to start to write the nugget “Computing as a Commodity: Distributed Computing over the Global Internet” as a chunk.
Being There Without Being There
Travel is fun, unless your flight is delayed, is crowded as usual, or you fly during a mealtime (do not fill up on those peanuts). Soon we will be able to make much of long-distance travel unnecessary: no more delays, no crowded seats, and no peanuts. Researchers are using the Internet to create an environment where people can work together seamlessly on projects of almost any kind. The only downside is there will be no frequent flyer miles for when you really want to be there—like take a vacation to the beach
Should we stay with nuggets alone? Or should we start to write chunks too? What do you think?