Hartmanis sees beauty in applying hard science to life
- By Heather Harreld
- Feb 16, 1997
Juris Hartmanis likes to imagine showing the Pentium chip to John Von Neumann the famed Princeton University scientist whose 1950s weather-forecasting machine filled up his entire basement. "I think it would totally blow the mind of a first-rate scientist of the '50s or '60s if he would not have watched the developments [of computers] in between " Hartmanis said. "Historians will write it as an amazing success...creating this science of information." As the new assistant director of the National Science Foundation's Directorate of Computer and Information Science and Engineering Hartmanis oversees NSF's research of the Internet supercomputers robotics and intelligent systems information processing systems and computational research. Several high-profile projects fall under his direction including the "Next Generation Internet " which is expected to increase by 1 000-fold the computing power of the Internet and "Internet II " a cutting-edge research network being developed by a 34-member university consortium. Because the scientists who will nurture these projects are from the same foundation that designed and helped develop the Internet the practical results from these endeavors hold much promise. But for Hartmanis the beauty of the systems is in the hard science and how it has emerged to become completely ingrained in everyday life. "My passion really lies with all of the computer science " he said. "Sometimes the great successes in technology...overshadow and draw attention away from the fact that in 30 or so years we have built a completely new science. When you look at computer science...this will affect how we do research how we do scholarly work how commerce is conducted industrial activities collaborative engineering - across states and across national boundaries. "Computing communications and content really are converging. The Net has provided such immense access to information that you really need to develop the science base of the technology to really exploit it fully."Hartmanis was first drawn to his profession as a young man after World War II when few physical and intellectual structures were left standing. He was in Germany at the time having emigrated from his native Latvia. In a September 1996 NSF press release Hartmanis described how the war affected his choice to pursue a career in science: "Everything was in ruins except that science was still functioning " he said. "At that time I was going to be a scientist. It was one of those untouched beautiful things that existed in the ruins."After receiving his undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Marburg he came to the United States to study for a master's degree at the University of Kansas City and later a doctorate at the California Institute of Technology both in mathematics. Hartmanis began his career during college when he worked during the summer for General Electric research labs. After college he joined GE full-time and worked for seven years during the early days of computer science when he says the first transistor machines were not yet reality. In 1965 he was lured away to academia and chaired the newly created computer science department at Cornell University one of the first computer science departments in the country. "Things looked so ideal " he said. "Everybody wanted to have a computer science program at Cornell. Arts and sciences wanted it engineering wanted it. They put it in both." He was the department's chairman until 1971 and a computer science professor until he accepted his present post at NSF last September. Still his association with NSF dates back to his early days at Cornell when his work was supported by the foundation. He also has served on NSF advisory committees and panels for fellowships and grants. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and in 1993 received the Turing Award the highest award in computer science. The high quality of the research programs and employees at NSF - coupled with a feeling of duty to perform public service - prompted Hartmanis to accept the position to head the program. "I was at a point in my career where I could afford to take the time off " he said. "It's clearly a very very interesting challenge to be at the main funding unit of computer science research. It's a noble institution. Its purpose is to further research and education and it's doing an amazingly good job. I had not the slightest reservations working for the government." In addition to the new initiatives to push the information technology envelope by developing "next-generation" tools Hartmanis said the consumption and protection of the massive amounts of data now generated by the explosion of the Internet are some of the new challenges NSF scientists will be tackling. While scientists have excelled at pushing computational speeds to near maximum levels they have been unable to progress to testing the security of cryptographic systems that are fast becoming the lifeblood of secure network operations. "Many [cryptographic systems] now are just running on assumptions " he said. "We have no proof. Today we can say the known technology will require so much time to crack them but there's no mathematical proof for many of them." Another project the foundation is researching is the creation of digital libraries and the development of tools to search these massive electronic depositories. While computer scientists have developed myriad tools to search and retrieve text mining images and graphics from these data storehouses has not yet been perfected Hartmanis said. As the world transforms itself fully into the information age Hartmanis perceives NSF as leading the development of tools to usher in the next era. "In the industrial revolution whoever exploited steam engines better gained tremendous advantages over others " he said. "He who develops the techniques and sets the standards...clearly has an advantage.