Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.

Reading the Classics

When “Reading the Classics” was first offered two years ago, the course announcement started by mentioning the Iliad. This year the facetious introduction was absent:

There are several papers in the history of science that seem to have been written with the express purpose of changing (or creating) a field. Their authors were often young, and the writing is almost always self-conscious — and usually a joy to read.

In this seminar we shall read several such papers from computer science and abutting fields.

The seminar has been fundamentally different from other courses or reading groups in which I’ve participated. Although we’ve been reading papers by Turing, Feynman, Nash, and Shannon, we have already encountered many of the results or there consequences in some previous form. Indeed, when Christos Papadimitriou introduced the class, he mentioned that one definition of a classic is something one can only reread because by the time one reads it, it has already influenced his or her thinking in fundamental ways.

How does one reread a classic? In addition to understanding the technical aspects of the paper, its historical context is important. The context can be divided into two parts: research prior to the work and research following it. A classic sometimes alters how research is conducted, so it helps to gain an appreciation of how the research was conducted before its publication. The impact of the work complements this by giving people a sense of how research was affected by it.

In addition to the intellectual context, there are also the authors’ biographies. Who were these authors? The answers have led to interesting class discussions. For instance, in last week’s discussion about Nash’s “Non-Cooperative Games” paper, Professor Addison, who attended graduate school with Nash, described students’ impressions of Nash and also his experiences with Albert W. Tucker, their adviser. Christos, in addition to describing how his own research has been influenced by Nash’s work, talked about his graduate days at Princeton, a time when Nash was known as The Phantom.

This week, we’ll be discussing Claude Shannon’s “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” I’ve already discovered a few gems on this reread and look forward to tomorrow’s discussion.


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