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How This Turing Award-Winning Researcher Became a Legendary Academic Advisor


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Theoretical computer scientist Manuel Blum.

Three of Blum’s students have also won Turing Awards; many have received other high honors in theoretical computer science, such as the Gödel Prize and the Knuth Prize, and more than 20 hold professorships at top computer science departments.

Credit: Ross Mantle

Every academic field has its superstars. But a rare few achieve superstardom not just by demonstrating individual excellence but also by consistently producing future superstars. A notable example of such a legendary doctoral advisor is the Princeton physicist John Archibald Wheeler. A dissertation was once written about his mentorship, and he advised Richard Feynman, Kip Thorne, Hugh Everett (who proposed the "many worlds" theory of quantum mechanics), and a host of others who could collectively staff a top-tier physics department. In ecology, there is Bob Paine, who discovered that certain "keystone species" have an outsize impact on the environment and started a lineage of influential ecologists. And in journalism, there is John McPhee, who has taught generations of accomplished journalists at Princeton since 1975. 

Computer science has its own such figure: Manuel Blum, who won the 1995 Turing Award—the Nobel Prize of computer science. Blum's métier is theoretical computer science, a field that often escapes the general public's radar. But you certainly have come across one of Blum's creations: the "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart," better known as the captcha—a test designed to distinguish humans from bots online.

"I don't know what his secret has been. But he has been a tremendously successful advisor," says Michael Sipser, a theoretical computer scientist at MIT who was advised by Blum, referring to the "extraordinary number of PhD students" who have worked with him and then gone on to make an impact in the field. "It is extraordinary in the literal sense of that word—outside the ordinary."

From MIT Technology Review
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