By Bill Steele
Juris Hartmanis, the Walter R. Read Professor in Engineering and first chair of the Department of Computer Science, will retire at the close of the current academic year after more than three decades at Cornell.
The department celebrated his career with an all-day symposium May 5, where colleagues from Cornell and elsewhere delivered technical papers on computer science, many dealing with problems whose study Hartmanis himself pioneered. The proceedings will be published later by Spencer-Verlag.
Hartmanis first came to Cornell in the late 1950s after receiving his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in 1955. He left to work for General Electric Research Laboratory, but was invited back to Cornell in 1965 to serve as the first chair of the newly founded Department of Computer Science, created jointly by the College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences with an initial grant of $1 million from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
In those days, Hartmanis said, "If you told someone you were in computer science they looked at you for a while and then said 'What's that?'"
Under Hartmanis' direction, the department quickly became a leader in theoretical computer science. It always has been ranked among the top five programs in the nation.
"The way he shaped [the department] has remained in place to this day, which is astonishing," said Robert Constable, university dean of computing and information, who joined the new department shortly after it was formed.
Among the core values Hartmanis instilled was "a feeling of great collegiality," Constable said. "Everybody's door is always open, there is a sense of open democratic discussion and we try to solve all problems by consensus."
In the meantime, Hartmanis made major contributions to research in the field. He received the prestigious Turing award for a paper co-written with GE colleague Richard Sterns that pioneered an area of computer science called computational complexity theory, which has to do with the fact that some computer problems are "non-deterministic," meaning the solution may take more computing resources than anyone has available. Usually these are problems where the computer must try many possible combinations of elements to find the fastest or least expensive arrangement. "You guess and then test the solution, but there are too many guesses," Hartmanis explained. So far, no one has produced a mathematical proof that the hard problems can't somehow be simplified, and until that happens, one of the holy grails of computer science is to find workable shortcuts.
Hartmanis is also a recipient of the Computing Research Association Distinguished Service Award for 2000. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a foreign member of the Latvian Academy of Sciences. And he serves as editor or adviser to several computer science journals.
"When I look back and look at where Cornell stands today in its computer science effort, I'm just very, very pleased and proud of what we've achieved," Hartmanis said.
"I feel I had a very rich and rewarding career as a scientist and educator, and at age 72, pushing 73, I think it's time to step sideways," he said. "I'm looking forward to doing what I really love to do, thinking, research, keeping up with new and exciting ideas and watching the department grow and prosper -- and I'm looking forward to the free parking that apparently one gets."