The Cornell Bowers CIS community gathered to honor the life and work of Juris Hartmanis, a Turing Award-winning scientist, founding chair of the Department of Computer Science, and visionary who helped establish computer science as an independent discipline. Hartmanis died July 29 at the age of 94.
At the celebration, held Nov. 4, a dozen colleagues spoke about Hartmanis’ significant contributions to the field of computer science, his dedication to building a vibrant and collegial department at Cornell, and the deep impact that his friendship and mentorship had on their lives. More than 60 friends, colleagues, and former students, as well as several family members, attended the event.
Dexter Kozen, the Joseph Newton Pew Jr. Professor in Engineering in the Department of Computer Science, chaired the celebration. “I was one of Juris’ first grad students,” he said, “and it had a tremendous impact on my life and my career.”
Kozen recalled the early days of the Department of Computer Science, back when it was a “theory shop” with just 13 faculty and not a single computer. “Doors were always open,” Kozen said. “This is something that Juris started.”
Established in 1965, Cornell’s Department of Computer Science was one of the first in the world, and early graduates left to form new departments all over the country.
“Juris was a deep intellectual thinker and a visionary administrative leader. That is a rare combination,” said Kavita Bala, dean of Cornell Bowers CIS, in her welcome remarks. “That breadth and depth is what made Juris unique.”
Bala announced that a conference room in the new Cornell Bowers CIS building will be named after Hartmanis through the generosity of Bill Pugh Ph.D.’88, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, and his wife, Lisa. "I appreciate the kind of professor and person he was,” said Pugh. “His record of service and building collegiality is exemplary, both at Cornell and within the broader CS community. Every great department has people like Juris, and I’ve grown to appreciate their importance in that greatness.”
Anil Nerode, Distinguished Professor of Arts and Sciences in Mathematics, and a long-time friend and colleague of Hartmanis, recounted their early days of building up the Computer Science Department. They shared a vision of faculty from across the university with joint appointments in computer science.
“It would happen,” Nerode recalled. “It might take a while.”
In the last 50 years, and with the founding of Computer Science's home college, the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, Bowers CIS now has collaborations and joint appointments with nearly every college.
Several attendees spoke about their work with Hartmanis and his intellectual contributions to the field. Hartmanis earned the nickname "the father of computational complexity" for discovering a set of fundamental laws that govern the difficulty of computation. This discovery established the foundation for a comprehensive theory of the efficiency and limits of computing.
“He was definitely a big-picture person,” said former student Jin-Yi Cai, Steenbock Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It was just wonderful to be learning at the feet of the great master.”
Many students also spoke of the tremendous impact that Hartmanis’ support had on their lives and career. Allan Borodin, a professor at the University of Toronto, summed up his old advisor best.
“After 55 years from my first class with Juris, my memory remains of Juris as a ‘mensch,’” he said. “Hard to translate, but here is one dictionary definition: A mensch is kind, thoughtful, and honorable – a good person.”
Patricia Waldron is a writer for the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science.