The HLF Portraits: Stephen A. Cook

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The HLF Portraits: Stephen A. Cook
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The Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation presents the HLF Portraits: Stephen A. Cook; ACM A.M. Turing Award, 1982 Recipients of the the Abel Prize, the ACM A.M. Turing Award, the ACM Prize in Computing, the Fields Medal and the Nevanlinna Prize in discussion with Marc Pachter, Director Emeritus National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, about their lives, their research, their careers and the circumstances that led to the awards. Video interviews produced for the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation by the Berlin photographer Peter Badge. The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation or any other person or associated institution involved in the making and distribution of the video.
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Steve if I may call you Steve
yes let's begin by situating you and
your childhood I'm gonna pick an
arbitrary year you're ten where are you
at that point yeah it well before age
ten I lived in Amherst New York which is
a near Buffalo New York and actually it
was when I was 10 years old my father
decided that he wanted to move to the
country when you see was brought up he
had spent no I she wasn't brought up on
a farm but he had spent a week on a farm
and he remembered it a lot so the whole
family my parents and and my brother's
moved to Clarence New York which is just
just 20 miles from Buffalo ok and bought
a 68 acre farm well which had a great
big barn and the hayloft and various
buildings and outbuildings and there was
a nice woods at the back of the property
sort of a classic American childhood
that most people really didn't have
that's very good of the dream childhood
that's right but my father was a chemist
and he still worked for Linde Air
Products and he still had a long drive
to work in Buffalo every day but he did
it every weekday and he did it for his
family and himself so that was his
choice and might by the way my mother
was also brought up on a farm and she
was a little less enthusiastic it was
not as romantic an idea for her that's
right and she could all be bored the
burden of the work getting it going yeah
that's right yeah well we as far as the
farm the crops growing crops we rented
so they the rental rental farmers
actually brought up the most of the
cries right and and they had cows there
were heifers there right - she had
probably a fairly large house to deal
with and and so forth me I said yes me
um you you said your father was a
chemist so you're you've anticipated a
question I would have quite naturally is
where did the interest in science come
in the family was he he was a chemist
but was he actively engaged as a father
and interesting his children in
chemistry and well I I think we were
we're all somewhat interested in in
um necessarily chemistry but science but
yeah that that's true I early on and I
child it he would talk about how
electric outlets and how they work and
think things like that he would I mean
it would explain things
he went to explain things that's that's
I guess my real mentor though was
somebody else the inventor of the
implantable pacemaker and Wilson
Greatbatch uh-huh and he became quite
famous he he won the first United States
invention he got a kid he got the prize
of the invention of the year
remember this implantable pacemaker he
he lived also in Clarence but in the
Clarence town not on a farm he lived a
couple miles away how did you come to
know him how did we come to know him
well one thing we went to the
Presbyterian Church in Clarence every
and and he was also there in fact he was
my Sunday school teacher initially
yes he and he had been he's a veteran of
World War two so he had he had stories
about that but mixed in right he he
brought you nevertheless into his
intellectual life as well as his
spiritual life that is correct that that
is true so when he was inventing this
plate implantable pacemaker
he used transistors of course they were
very new in the 50s they replacing
vacuum tubes you can't put a vacuum tube
in your chest or right so he realized
this and he was very interested in
transistors circusy electrical engineer
and so somehow I got a summer job
working in his attic he in the garage
that's where he did and he would on a
piece of cardboard he would draw a
circuit with transistors and capacitors
and resistors and wires and then my job
was to take the actual transistors and
everything put them on the card and
solder them together and then he would
take his oscilloscope and turn it on and
you'd see but and so that's how it
and you're you're intrigued I mean yeah
you're doing the job but you're also
clearly interested yes I I thought that
was quite in and then I got a summer job
later on working in one of the factories
he was working on so yes I was quite
taken I decided I guess I wanted to be
electrical engineer yeah yeah so we can
conclude this is really a question that
it was really outside of school that the
mentoring that send you on your way
happened yes that's how I did well in
do I we had Regents exams New York State
had Regis
Sam's and I did especially well in
mathematics mm-hmm so yeah so I was
somewhat interested in mathematics but
when it came time to choose the
university first yes well my parents had
had met at University of Michigan
so that was the natural place to go
right and so I enrolled my brother had
also older brother and had done it and I
as I took as an engineer the School of
so you you were already not set in your
ways but set on your path yeah you you
expected to be an engineer you had had
an early experience of it and liked
liked it I suppose in Michigan you
probably didn't have to actually declare
a major for a couple of years well so
the engineering school was different
from the arts and science skills so I
was in the engineering school I did take
I started out taking a calculus course
and I did well the the professor was cos
Aronoff he was a Russian guy and
actually he would he and I actually did
extracurricular work and he was
impressed with that so mathematics was
creeping in there I stayed in the
engineering program for two and a half
years and then I applied to go to arts
and science and major in math okay
that's a clearly an important point in
your life um I'm gonna ask something
that is so obvious but maybe maybe
there's an interesting answer to be had
in what did you think was going to be
the difference in a switch from the life
of an engineer who clearly had ability
in that to a life in mathematics well I
guess I knew
mathematicians mostly do more pen and
paper work than they do build things so
I guess I was was still interested in
computers which of course were brand new
then and I actually did some writing
computer programs for the the University
of Michigan computer they had they had
one of the early vacuum two computers
and anyway so maybe that's even what
prompted my question now that I think
about it because in the engineering
world you would have had access to
computers such as they were at that
point yes going switching into the arts
and sciences and mathematics was a step
away from this hands-on experience but
it may not have been that well beyond
science there wasn't there was a
actually an arts and science program it
was a one year that was sorry one hour a
week program a week program for learning
how to program and so I took that so
there was some there was something there
too I was so interested in computers yes
I had a summer job - that's Cornell
aeronautical whatever which was maasai
Research Institute that that built stuff
and the thing they were built actually
they have a computer there Bendix g15
computer which was an it back into
computer the size of a refrigerator and
they were there was the assignment I was
part of was to help fighter jets land on
aircraft carriers this is you know in
the 60s so
and so what it was very primitive thing
but what the computer was the sense
where the airplane was and then sent a
sent something to the pilot saying go
left go right or something like that so
it was a very primitive kind of thing
but anyway I was involved in that and
did some programming and you know at the
time it's easy
looking back to wonder did computers
seem to be a wave of the future that you
might want to be involved in or was it
just something incidental to another
another route oh as pretty clear
computers were important and and there I
I got quite I got pretty interested in
them and even this Bendix g15 which I
have to say had 400 vacuum tubes and
they were always burning out so I had to
take an oscilloscope and find out tube
was shot and replace it the time but
it's not clearly discouraging you it's
no it's encouraging this was a permanent
a relatively primitive yeah they the IBM
came out with better stuff so we've got
you into mathematics yes so I was now
then majoring in mathematics that's true
a particular direction and so I yeah I
yeah I was taking good algebra courses
and calculus and this and that so and I
was still interested in computers so I
can't say exactly where I was gonna go
mm-hmm but I did want to do graduate
work you knew that already
yes and and I decided then to look for
do it in mathematics and you were
looking around for where to do graduate
work I'm gonna just assume you did
well as an undergraduate yes you could
consider a number of yeah that's true so
where were you deciding to go well I
well I went to Harvard finally decided I
guess MIT was the possibility and I
could have stayed on at Michigan right
but I guess some reason Harvard seemed
to have the most interesting impression
so yes I applied for to get a degree
graduate degree and in mathematics at
Harvard and and I was accepted was the
department oriented in a particular
direction there was it fairly was
certainly not interest certainly not
computation though I understand that but
even within mathematics well we had
experts in in group theory and ring
theory and calculus and so on and so now
I don't I can't say there's any
particular area my accepted but not
especially computation right however
however I took a course God was
interested in in computers and so I took
a course from a professor how long but
he wasn't in the math department well he
was in this this other department which
was related to engineering and but that
but the course was still theoretical it
was a theoretical course but computation
came in right and so I got interested in
that and it was it was partly in
mathematical logic which is particularly
intrigued so I decided I wanted to work
with him and that the math department
said that's okay
that's okay yes okay so that was not a
complicated choice in terms of
see I didn't yeah it's okay they were a
night they were generous that way so he
was a mathematician - so was he in the
end your supervisor district yes yes he
was he was my PhD supervisor how do you
go about deciding on what that subject
is going to be well so it was I was
certainly intrigued by the mathematical
logic and there was also a computational
part involved trying to - became that in
fact Wong this is very early on he
worked for IBM for a while and he he
wrote a paper programming a computer
that would decide or come up with formal
proofs propositional formulas right and
this seems pretty trivial now but it was
kind of an AI think because meanwhile
other AI people Carnegie Mellon were
trying to to do the same thing and they
retired to use artificial intelligence
to come up with the proofs right but
Wang was a mathematician and he just
beat them all to health
I mean his his program was much better
than and all the others she was he
coming to this bright young man and
saying to you this is what I would
propose for your dissertation well I'm
not sure it was a he put it that way but
I became interested in in the the idea
of trying to get computers to prove
theorems it wasn't just simple
propositional calculus but real
mathematical theorems
so that was my that was my interest so
that was the broad if you will problem
how to relate mathematics to computer I
mean how how did you put the problem
well yeah
is-is-is mathematics because you have to
come up with an algorithm and and prove
that the algorithm works that's
sufficient right so on right yeah so
it's certainly mathematical so so my
what the thesis was actually was pretty
pretty simple sounding it's
computational problems of just
multiplication how to get a touring
machine which is the mathematical thing
and how much time it takes for a to come
up with the theorem well just to do
multiplication for example so I had
results and anti results and things but
this is clearly related to your future
work because whole question of how
complex how much time will it take is at
the core of what your later discoveries
will be yes that's true how difficult is
it to solve certain kinds of mathematics
problems and that was it so it shows up
as early as your dissertation yes yes I
think that's right again it's a pattern
in academia whatever the field to then
try to publish after the dissertation is
done some some article that summarizes
as conclusions did you do that well I
let's see
well my thesis was I guess published it
made publishing but pretty much as
written you didn't do yeah well that was
part of it
but I was also interested in other
computational problems excuse me just so
clearly I've got to get you with your
degree got to get you launched on your
next stage so how where do we where do
you go so as a result yeah I I I applied
for a job at at university california
berkley and why did i do that in other
places too
this seemed appealing I had heard that
it's a good place to find a wife you
know just which is what happened it's
what happened this is what happened so
you were right in that were you also
right in your choice of his department
yes so it was since my degree was in
mathematics the natural thing was to
apply to the mathematics department now
which probably was a mistake because
well there was a just the very brand-new
budding of a computer science department
really wasn't on its feet so but I I had
a strange position it was 50% in
mathematics and 50% in something to do
with computation computers but it was
engineering not and it wasn't connected
to there was the formal offer to you to
this year I guess that was the offer
half and half oh and so tell me more
than you knew maybe about your future
in any case that did that benefit you I
mean was that well it I it was good to
get a job yes and I taught courses in
mathematics and so that was fine and and
logic logic do you have the stimulation
of colleagues that are important to you
or well yeah that's interesting the the
the math department did have a good
logic group but not not really
computation there wasn't there wasn't
that there but there were these budding
but computer science department so I had
some interaction you did yeah with them
I've also been interested because of the
many people I've interviewed with what
culture existed broadly between Berkeley
and Stanford in terms of those
interested in computational issues were
you feeling any of that oh you mean that
yes Stanford was also somewhat
interested I think I think the so
somehow the computer science department
was just just starting and the math
department wasn't very interested yeah
so there wasn't really a broader
community that you could join across the
Bay Area so to speak oh I guess no maybe
I maybe lose the way of doing it but you
know but it didn't anyway it didn't work
right right and so the upshot was after
what at whatever the two or three years
the math department denied me tenure
which is famously considered one of its
big mistakes some time for them to
realize that yes the math department
wasn't interested in computation I think
that that was the problem and it was
clear where you were going in your
thinking yes that's right I I had I
would written some papers that had to do
actually with the things later I was
interested in polynomial time problems
and non-deterministic polynomial time
problems I didn't actually publish that
paper but that has generated some
interest right that the two the two
things were quite interested can you
does non-deterministic polynomial time
can be solved in deterministic
polynomial time I was quite intrigued by
that and I was trying very hard to prove
the answer's no
of course that would approve P not equal
NP but that was before right but it's of
course interesting as one looks outside
into your career so what looks like if
not a disaster a setback in not having
been given tenure lead you to search for
another position and of course we'll
talk about that but it's just a year
later that you you write your seminal
paper I mean it's yeah it's quite
amazing to be denied tenure yes who be
established intellectually in such a
profound way but take me through those
well there's some yeah I don't know why
at least in the time I didn't know all
the issues here the math department
wasn't especially interested the
computer science department there were
people there interested and they but
I've learned this later I they didn't
want they they didn't want to offer me a
position when my time was up actually I
guess I could have stayed one year
longer but I decided not to but anyway
since I didn't get that guarantee from
the computer science environment and I
was told later on it was really the Dean
it was the Dean he said I'm not going to
let you hire somebody that was denied
tenure yeah I believe it is parody me
often operates this yeah so that being
said you denied tenure this other option
is not a real one
as it turns out you've actually gotten
your wife oh right so that that that
goal was met as well so now you've got
to leave yes where are you gonna go
yes well applied I guess things Harvard
I guess and
Princeton among other things I guess
there was University of Washington right
yeah it was Carnegie Mellon one of the
places you might have one oh not
particularly I don't remember
applying to my well kind of you probably
didn't okay but that what probably would
have been a good one yeah I don't
remember that you know it was it was
very right moment there but anyway there
it is so you're applying I'm applying
places now of course welled up
University of troms? no how did that
happen I wasn't thinking of that but one
of the faculty members at Berkeley in
computer science had just left the
University of Toronto really that's
right well he thought I guess he thought
it was a better place to go I don't know
because the the U of T computer science
was just starting it was then hardly
existed does that seem like an
opportunity for this young man that
we're talking about or does that seem
like a problem why did he move you know
why did he move there is it a problem
that they're just getting started
and you would have ideally wanted a more
established that's a good question why
did he want to move yes I I'm not sure
I'm not sure what the answer was but
there there was something attractive
about it anyway and it was a tenured
position it was a tenured position yes
I'm pretty attractive
that that's right so yeah he's anyway
but he you know I got to know him and he
he was impressed by me yeah so he found
the chair of the U of T department said
you got to interview this guy okay so
that's that's how that's how it happened
yeah so off you go from California to
the snowy north
and they're offering you tenure are they
do they have expectations of what you
want yeah so what was that I think I
can't quite remember I think that it was
almost guaranteed but maybe no or
something like that
anyway it didn't didn't seem to be a it
wasn't they really wanted me there so
what did they expect for you to be
working on oh I guess whatever and the
computation theory of computation I I
think that's because I had done some
work in the area right and so yeah and I
mean your groundbreaking work is just
about to happen that's what so intrigues
me about this better academic dilemma
and choices and so forth but as you say
it hadn't happened it hadn't happened
yet but that's right but I guess I made
a good impression
yeah and and their decision Waldo
working very well for them so it's a
happy it's a happy ending but let's
let's get to that groundbreaking work
yeah okay so that that's right so what's
the timing this is 70 that that you're
mm I'd yeah 1970 year denied 1971 is
when your paper is published okay so I
guess in it was September let's see yeah
this is September 1970 then that would
be the logical yeah I think it was
September 1970 that I started and that's
right so then I I was interested in
theory again in computational complexity
and difficulty proving theorems and
right and things like that
and so I I submitted the paper to stalk
the was was that the third stock
conference say I think symposium on
theory of computing right and so I had
some some theorems there this this is
cuz very early in the stock stock now is
very very hard to get published value it
wasn't so hard then yeah but maybe in
terms of your status in the field was
not yet established yes the work was
compelling well when I submitted of
course wasn't P and NP completeness
that's the funny thing that's the
strange thing okay
it was something about theorem proving
in there and that's what I was
interested in but there was no not not
such an interesting subject is and
completeness is I had that idea after I
submitted my paper okay and they
accepted it right such as was yeah and
then I got the idea of NP completeness
and I'm so asked a romantic question
which is that was there a Eureka moment
was there a Eureka moment yes I suppose
yes I was certainly interested in the
the question of right what we would now
call P versus NP and I was trying to I
spend a lot of time trying to prove that
the you know the problem given a
propositional formula is it valid right
and and that turns out to be np-complete
but I didn't believe it could be done in
polynomial time
so I spent a lot of work trying to prove
that unsuccessfully haha still
unsuccessful by the way and so I was
interested in that issue but then the
idea of completeness I I got
and gave some examples yeah paper
besides the besides this issue and the
that this question this NP problem is
that satisfied well I guess that would
be easy given the proposition formulas
at satisfiable right and and then
improve that if that could be done poly
time lots of other things could be done
poly time to fact all the NP / that's
the Quarian site yeah that was the whole
point I got that idea there and and then
and what I actually turned the pay P the
final version and I put that in there
wasn't there that's that's that's really
quite extraordinary yes and the response
was immediate and quite celebratory yeah
yeah that's right people were impressed
that that's to dick dick carp was of
course especially impressed right right
I think he's one of the ones who later
regretted for the mathematics department
oh yeah he not having held on to you
well he were he was supportive at the
time when I when I was left but he he
couldn't convince that oh of course yes
yeah but he he sort of got you if you
will yeah he got me yeah that's true but
I mean even before while I was still in
Berkeley he he was on my side yes yes
well that's good to know
okay where do you go from here you're
pretty young to have hit the jackpot
well that I guess made me it's what may
be famous
yes oh so I was still interested in in
that question and and and in general the
computational complexity of problems
that's my and and logical that that's my
two areas of interest to this day is Ray
I mean I don't know I guess nothing is
quite the same is that the so I have to
think yeah I had quite a few papers out
I I had not got to say offhand what was
especially good oh sure sure anyway they
were there there was certainly interest
in the area and I had students who were
bright oh I was gonna ask first about
your colleagues and then your students
yeah what about your colleagues well my
my close colleague was what's his Ellen
what's his name anyway
that's awful yeah but you found a
colleague - oh yes he was a very close
colleague and we we had had a couple of
things together but he was also very
encouraging more than his name Ellen
Bora it was gonna come yeah sorry no
problem so again a general question with
within your your your pattern of inquiry
would you or is it this even useful way
to put it more of an isolated thinker
who thought within the parameters of
your own study or when I somebody who
used discourse as a way of well I had
students first of all I know the right
students and I work with them and some
of them were very bright and we
generated some some good good work and
good good theses and of course we worked
as I said I did work we had a couple
papers with Ellen Borden and then I had
the student Tony and Potosi and she and
she was a very interesting person and we
collaborated on
on and work and she said she got her PhD
and and wrote some interesting stuff and
went off to other universities and
eventually she came back to us
so she was a very valuable colleague
brother much of my career or years you
know know again as a broad question how
interested are you at this point in the
practical implications of any of your
ideas I mean are you think of yourself
as a theorist with no interest in how
this will play out in the developing
computer world
what is your intellectual personality on
this question oh well certainly the
np-completeness question I could have if
it turned out P equals NP could have
amazing results and that's certainly
interested in that yes I mean that's the
whole point the questions involved are
important and they have they they were
repercussions yeah I'm gonna change
things sure give me an idea of some of
the implications as they played out and
whether you were actively part of that
process or not well of course the most
most obvious is is to prove you can
prove theorems a much more if if if they
have a short proof the theorem has a
short proof and many of them do
polynomial time right then you can find
it and that would be amazing I mean in
in general right so that anyway he says
despite all efforts of myself and
everyone else nobody's been able to to
prove or disprove and by the way I get
inundated with people who think they so
then you also know the
the million-dollar prize given to the
this is one of the those problems that I
guess there were ten mathematical
problems this is one of them and they
offer a million dollars for each one so
the upshot of that is people constantly
send me their proofs or disproves really
this well that's tapering off I know but
it's amazing how many people think they
can solve it right one way or the other
well I suppose that's good in a way well
I don't know it's it that's the reason
of course they were so anxious because
the things they do it just because
because of the million dollars but why
do you stay in Toronto I mean not that
there's a batteries a good reason to
leave but it's a lifetime position that
turns out I mean yes that's true what is
well Toronto is a nice city one one of
the attractive things about Toronto
right from the start which the the the
chair knew about because it was sailing
and that's how I left that's how I met
my wife Linda was at Berkeley she she
was a the secretary of the undergraduate
well it was it was the student sailing
club at Berkeley Wow and so they had
they owned a bunch of boats and they
give sailing lessons and by the way I I
didn't know how to sail but I was
interested yeah yeah I joined the club
they let a faculty member join join the
student club that's how you made it and
that's how I met Linda yeah she was the
secretary and so I learned to sail right
and there's a bit of water around
Toronto and yeah well yes
there certainly is there's Lake Ontario
and of course so yeah we both Linda I
bought a boat and we sailed did a lot of
sailing together so we were both
interested so the city the city had its
appeal are you being courted elsewhere
are there groups of people dealing with
problems that continue to interest you
elsewhere are you talking about why not
in in mathematics in Oracle
computational theory I mean the people
tried to pry me away oh there was a
movement by Chapel Hill
what Chapel Hill what's the North
Carolina the University of North
Carolina yeah
no do not do do don't thank you which is
in Chapel Hill but yes I know actually
my younger brother is a professor there
oh really okay but anyway no-nothing
persuaded you to leave that's right
that's right they yeah we were quite set
here in Toronto while sailing was one
thing it's a nice City there's nice
music yeah we're good supporters of the
opera Atelier for example and so I'm
getting the cultural reasons and I'm
fishing for something I should probably
is it is it relevant which is how the
intellectual problems are emerging here
whether Toronto is emerging as a
significant center for discussions in
computational theory AI various things
that well that's true because this is
you're here during a significant growth
period yes
not only in the field in general but
here well that's true I mean that's to
our department grew nothing not just
theory of computation yes and certainly
AI artificial intelligence right
some major parts or yes our department
grew to be a very strong department yes
it's nice to be in such a such a great
course that are you attracting again
this is just the process of academic
career building are you attracting
students that interest you you you've
just mentioned a few oh well not now
probably I don't know no but most of
your career here you mean did I that I
attract because of the problems that
interested you yeah I thought oh they
are probably to some extent sure we we
got some students that way you don't
sound like an empire builder
no I'm not an empire builder no I mean
I've had I paddled what is it 35 PhD
students that yeah that's where Cole
supervised by the way some of them so
isn't I don't get credit for them
alright but yeah I think people came
that were interested in working with me
right because we got bright people yes
yes and then one of the central issues
then the complexity that needs to be and
continues to need to be addressed yes so
Toronto becomes I think a very important
center and great part because you're
here that being said toward I know
you've retired not so long ago really
but while you were there and maybe
continuously are there problems issues
questions that are interesting you and
that you're you might even send another
generation before well there are such
problems that I think at my age now I'm
I'm feeling my age right and my
inability to remember stuff in the way
that's a that's a that makes it makes
things difficult so
it's not I I do think about problems but
but actually in the moment right now the
most interesting problem is one that my
son James the younger son James well he
he proved a theorem that actually is is
really very interesting yes he he got
his undergrad work at Toronto and his
PhD at Berkeley in computer science and
then he went work for Google oh but I
guess he got tired of Google so and I
somehow he's well off and so he just
recently resigned but he's he's doing
mathematics now and he's proved this
interesting theorem which I probably
wouldn't understand but broadly and what
I'm not sure I understand though
completely but it's very intriguing
stuff and so and then he teamed up with
a grad student who was happened to be a
student at Tony Potosi uh-huh and they
they worked on this together and they
hey by the way had submitted it to stock
really and just recently got an email
from Tony who was in Europe and was
talking to people and she mentioned she
talked to somebody about this result
this this theorem and the guy said oh
yeah I saw that that's really really
good and breeze how we suspect he was on
the committee and there's a chance
they're fairly good chance though except
that I think that's a very satisfying
way to end
yes discussion with your son in a way in
the same the same path yeah well I guess
it's beginning to look that way
thank you very much yes


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