Distinguished Lecture: Understanding Science Through the Lens of Computation

April 23, 2009
Lecture 3:00 pm - 4:00 pm; Reception 4:00 - 5:00 in Burden Lounge
Nelson Auditorium
Speaker: Richard M. Karp, University of California at Berkeley


Viewing natural or engineered systems through the lens of their computational requirements or capabilities provides new insights and ways of thinking about computational processes. In this lecture I will briefly describe how a computational viewpoint illuminates several areas, including biology, sociology, economics, quantum computing, statistical physics, the Web and the Internet.

Biological processes at many levels can be understood in terms of computation. These range from the molecular level to the operation of the immune system and the brain, and to the behavior of ant colonies, beehives and birds flying in formation.

In the social sciences, the strategic behavior of companies can be approached algorithmically using tools such as computational game theory, and the evolution of Web-based social networks can be cast in algorithmic terms. Although the Web and the Internet are man- made they were not really designed, and can best be understood as natural phenomena.

The behavior of computational devices at a subatomic level leads to the abstract mathematical model of a quantum computer. Researchers in quantum computation study the computational potential of this model, and in the process devise new tests of the validity of the standard theory of quantum mechanics.

Statistical physics is based on stochastic models of the interaction of large assemblages of atoms, molecules or molecular spins, and finds common ground with stochastic models in computer science involving the interactions of large numbers of combinatorial variables and constraints, or the interactions of many agents communicating and negotiating over the Internet.