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5th HLF – Interviews with mathematics and computer science laureates: Whitfield Diffie

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let's start with your own mentors would you would you consider your own mentors well of course I have to consider helman I I wouldn't basic all the work I did before I met Hellman I didn't know how to publish I didn't know how to judge what was important I didn't know what would be there are several issues about publication right and one of them causes what's good for you and lots of people you know even publishing things that are not terribly important work when they're often useful other people and - they are good for your career so I didn't I didn't was not very well in touch with any of that before I met Hellman I'm not my mind kind of goes blank when you ask questions like this but I guess I'd have to say I don't think I mean with the exception of helmand I'm not sure than any of the other people with name thought of themselves as mentoring me right so I often say Roland silver who was my I met he is the reason I think I got I got the job at mitre in 1965 he is a an unsung hero of the of computing he understood structured programming a decade before the people who who made his famous discovered it and he didn't know how to publish later in his life he published quite a lot of stuff but he didn't sort of didn't had a lot of writer's block or something probably didn't understand what was critical he was it might he was a Welsh miner at that time he had been he'd worked for deck I don't know I don't know his resume that well he left mitre in earlier in 1969 than I did and moved to Taos New Mexico and worked freelance from there he was tremendously organized person who could undertake a project and do a top-down design and write all the code so I had a very nice marketable Tao so what was your interaction with him like well talking about random things the way I do with most people I mean no there were moments I remember moments uno is showing me how a piece of code worked and things like that and in taking over pieces of code that he's written in understanding exactly how well organized they were but it just come it just feels like a friendship or something it doesn't I don't I can't identify this important working component we had serious conversations about issues that didn't that didn't bear on what we were working on at that moment he belonged understand this is German word for this but I forgotten it a culture of serious conversation and he was what I remember talking to a german interviewer his name's of my mind but the interview was on the web and saying that i found that at my corporation I was worried then working for Bell northern research people's conversations they seemed to think of them as just entertained trivial conversations they're not any consequence for the world whereas at MIT we people talked about things away away from their recognized expertise but they with a confidence that the turn their attentions to those things they could do something about them that it wasn't frivolous to be discussing the great problems of the world and so forth so I think my conversations was rolled and silver were like that I have to name John McCarthy I worked for John McCarthy for several years around 1970 and knew him you know last saw him a week or so before he died I think I'd have to name a man named Peter Switzer also not terribly well-known one of the things he did was discovered why laser light sparkles isn't that so Mobley but he he was he was a very he was he worked for horst feistel at the Air Force Cambridge research lab cryptographic group around 90 in the in the early 50s and I learned a great deal from him he but you know these things I the word mentor normally you think of a mentor as somebody who was in a senior position within an organization or something like that I'm telling you about people who my functional relationship was some combination of friendship and intellectual compatibility that seems to fit your relationship with dr. hellman yes except that Hellman was at least one he taught me things within the framework of his being a professor in my being a student and the
so that one that one really does fit right I mean he was he he took he did things with me and with things that I did that advant that advanced opposition in the world in a more organized way in the end the others I mean if I think if have mentor in terms of people I learned things from of people interference by behavior my interests I probably my late wife Mary Fisher has greater standing as anyone else I mean so my whole you know my whole way of living a way of thinking changed as a function of meeting her so this is your first Heidelberg laureate forum right because it is you've got your Turing award recently right I imagine people have come up to you and have been looking for wisdom how do you how do you deal with that how do you think you get that across I people I mean people maybe come up to me and ask me explicit questions I don't remember I mean I just chat with people now yesterday on the boat I talked somebody wanted to talk about about ethics and we just playing had a conversation I I'm I may be a little less prejudiced against ethics now than I was before I think of ethics often it's a rationalization for manipulating people into doing things that aren't really in their best interest and this guy came up with some some examples of ethical ethical issues oh yeah my name is Maurice shadow I'm not good with names and he says he's has an organization Cambridge of mathematics and ethics or something at that time and he changed your mind a little bit yeah I have whether I changed his you can get him and ask him he was upstairs a few minutes ago going off top didn't surf so how have you found the the forum I've enjoyed it very much what once one sense I have is of course where I understand there are practical reasons for not making it longer but one's just getting warmed up after about four or five days of this and there I was unhappy I didn't conduct myself correctly on Monday that is to say I'm I'm I didn't even take the Heidelberg tour or go to the go to the discussion of quantum to pop topological computing or whatever it was called right so it didn't I didn't get the best results on Monday and in general I'm opposed I'm I don't like parallel sessions in in breakout sessions and the format of this kind of discussion groups where they sort of produce a final report and claim to accomplish something an hour rather than just had a chat but you know of course all of the entertainment parts have been pretty good the and I don't know if you want this kind of nitty-gritty I mean the you know what that dinner we had the first of the big dinners we had no that's that's an accurate description we had a dinner and a rounded gothic Mensa somewhere over across the square from here that was the first one I wasn't bad because the format promoted a lot of moving around sort of easy to walk off and get go to the bar and get a drink and come back and go and get a bit of food and come back and so forth and you keep any of those the number of people in fact able have shifted and so forth so that I thought in a couple of hours that place was too noisy but other than that I I found it real easy to talk to a variety of people the next one was a sit-down dinner somewhere with eight people in the signed tables and they had one laureate for a table or or maybe it was at most one laureate I think some tables lacked laureates and people had been a drawing for numbers to be a tables well I could not see the two people who were across the table from me because it was stuff piled up I can barely hear anybody able to two people right next to me so I didn't think I was able to serve their interest terribly well I was very proud of discovering then that we could detach the balloon from its rock and weight it just right and get it to float around the room I was at the table next to you guys you guys were making we're making we're
having a lot of fun that required less time it warf on out of less talking and given that it was so difficult to talk in there that was I was happy with doing that I thought the boat ride was very good I got stuck I'm and so I enjoyed it but the point I only talked that Oh a changing crew for for 248 or something like that over a period of whatever it was two hours or something I had forgotten to bring a hat so I didn't want to spend very much time up on the top deck and I had no idea for some I don't know if no idea why the students at the beginning were almost all up on the top maybe they were told to do that and there were a few people in the middle deck sitting around at the tables by the windows but students then came downstairs subsequently and so I thought that was a good format it was quiet maybe it wouldn't have been quiet if enough people had settled into the middle deck but it was better than a places yeah I noticed that as well that immediately I think it was just the excitement of being you know outside on it yeah no I think I'm my inclination as soon as I got in I I sat down first with Marty and Dorothy and then moved over to talk to John Hart Croft and then well it's partly before I went to soccer on cough drops I thought let me find the way upstairs and see what it's like outside and talk to him and said he said I've forgotten he had some excuse for why he could he couldn't go upstairs son sensitive or something of that kind but he said you know she'd go upstairs and talk to students and I was like you know that's a that's a responsible thing to do so I'll I'll go do that and then the Bavarian night wasn't was in between that place was noisy but not as noisy because it had a tent roof over a lot of it and but it also I didn't move I didn't I talked too much the same people because it didn't promote but moving around I go get food but something about the structure it wasn't easy to change tables didn't run into people and sit on another table and so forth so I the of course or a function I don't know that it's a function of both formats but they don't think there's a lot of virtue in seating you with a bunch of people you don't know right you might end up with a wonderful conversation you might not and so I think something closer to a cocktail party format in which are lots of places to stand and accept your plate down or places sitting and and something that promotes shuffling of the of the personnel is probably better this is it this was a question that came up with the mathematicians not so much for the computer scientist but is juicing math for them as a social sport and it sounds like in all of your answers it's really been yes it's very much a social I for you yellow I'm not very good at
doing homework so much of what I accomplished us in but that's soon so would you find the mathematician social or not mostly there was own actually it was one computer scientist who well sir Tony Hoare I guess he was a Turing Award recipient I think he was the only one who really said that he mostly learned from papers as opposed to being social without that so I'm not what I learned I'm not sure what I learned him where or how I have the by I think if I could make one change in my career in in the way I could purchase it not not in events I think it would be that like if I could have worked on very early on on my shyness about what happens somebody asked me a question I know I can answer it but I can't answer it without a piece of paper and some quiet as opposed but and that's just because I'm sort of afraid you know I've stage fright and that's not a lot of people I mean I don't have stage I talked to large audiences just fine but in interaction somebody's gotten somebody asked me about some theorem yesterday and I knew that if I worked on it a little while I could prove it but I couldn't remember instantly had to prove and I have lots of that in interactions and if I could have gotten over that then I believe that since I'm basically a social person I could have got a lot of profit out of something Hilary Putnam whom one might count I suppose is one of my mentors when mentors as a philosopher and logician and a mathematician and he wrote in a there's a volume in the encyclopedia of living biography which was published while he was still living but only a year of before his death that volume starts with his quote intellectual autobiography so there's about a hundred pages recounts his life with great emphasis on on the world and in it he says that mathematicians write their papers you know basically as a joke writing a mathematics paper is going back and coming off your tracks so nobody can see outside and he in essence says that he doesn't say it quite that rudely he said but mathematicians aren't like that when they talk so it's learned most of the mathematics he knows by talking to mathematicians and I think I think there's a lot of truth to that and I can't learn very well by talking to people because I says I feel challenged I I you know my mind glazes over when I'm standing talking to people and I I feel I don't have the right answer available or something as he has explained something means you understand I think I'm supposed to understand but I can't understand yet and so that's I said if I could make one change see one change in the style of my life that would probably have made it much better that would be it I appreciate you doing the interview because it seems like this is a might set off that oh no no no what I think not because I mean you could probably manage to ask a question that would produce that result but it's more about question things that I should know and could figure out but can't figure out in real time with people depending on me I mean you often you know and I can figure out later in my imagination what I should have said I mean I remember once somebody was giving a talk but I never knew whether he knew this or not because I had never asked the question but as I couldn't couldn't formulate what I'm about to say but he had says he had a he had a register with 31 elements and he the talk was about the about ways of computing sequences and he said something had to pick the taps for it carefully or something like that and I wanted to ask him that you know 31 with register of length 31 it doesn't matter I mean any essentially any set of taps works maybe one doesn't work and taps doesn't work but every other set of taps works right but I couldn't get clear in my mind the arguments for that right which is very straightforward you know once I have a little quiet I realize well yes two to the thirty one two to the thirty one is the size of the field to the thirty one minus one is prime because Mars 3107 prime that means there are two a prime number of nonzero elements so if you start with any element other than one it has to generate because of that disorder the subgroup has to decide the Ordos field but it was afraid you know I couldn't get that clear in my mind there so I never got to ask him whether he realized that this register of 31 he had didn't have this problem eight mansions so that's that's probably a very good example of what you know how these things work for me yeah I'd like to talk a little bit about five year period synthesis ii v HLF okay and and actually let's start with five years ago because that was before you had had received the triton award how has your life changed in those five years well okay so you have recognized the the biggest influence of my life over the past five years has nothing to do with this has to do with my wife's illness and death so in the fall of 2010 international traveling was taught summer of 2013 and in the fall of 2013 my wife's cancer spread to her back and she immediately realized that and she you know didn't have a solid diagnosis till february and she had one of these million-dollar all-day surgeries in February and marette and it wind thinks she was going to live two months and a she was discovered by an oncologist a medical oncologist who thought she could looked at the characteristics of the case and thought you to treat her and sure enough got two years of fairly productive life by being treated with estrogen inhibitors but in any but the point is I've had solid four years in which I couldn't I could barely travel anywhere and the endless last year in essence I haven't hadn't last year before her death I didn't know anywhere but um that really you know was I lost I lost a lot of touch with this world so how am I loved my life has changed in the last five years it became entirely a life of very funny sort of second honeymoon with Mary because we spent so much about ain't together and we enjoyed a lot of our time together but of course also it was a very sad period and so it was distinctly you know no other five years in my life ever has been at all like this or probably ever will be and that's so that's the answer of the last question unexpected answers but I'm sorry I didn't know that that was happening during during this whole period will you at the award ceremony last year no okay cuz Mary was there but she was hobbling around in a cane I mean she was she looked lovely but she was that was the last party she was able to get to she wasn't well enough to go to any of the through there were three you know private events held too fat us and Mary didn't get to any of them and by the way
if you want me to remove that section no the last thing I want to ask you is
since most of these people are 22 to 27 or so is all right okay the one who spent most time with yesterday was 33 could be his actual teachers of Cambridge and I'm sort of guessing that they're around that age because you've got a mixture of masters and doctoral and postdoc I don't know I don't know anything about the filtering process that found these four or five hundred people um but let's just talk about that you know late 20s let's just say what mid time yeah okay I'm into like 20s I guess the first thing is to think back to when you are that age and then is there anything that you would say to people to these researchers of that age that they should be focusing on at that period in their career well I don't know I suspect that career is a little different from mine because I'm a particular lousy student and so my career was dominated by the fact that I barely graduated from MIT I didn't get into graduate school I needed to dodge the draft right so I got I got a job for an outfit called mitre where I had the incredible good lime and my life was dominated by good luck far as I can see I had the incredible good luck to get in to be able be able to work on a project called math labs it was supported by independent research funds that was of interest to Minsky Minsky gave us you know let us use this computer at the AI lab that meant I didn't have to go I lived two blocks from there in Cambridge I didn't have to go out to mitre every day so it continued live very much like an academic researcher rather than like a nine-to-fiver and you you didn't have a doctorate no I don't have it I don't exactly have a real doctorate now I mean the the Jim masse at the eth I think it's a bird I think it's a lovely nicely tied up story but Jim Massie at the eth got hot under the collar when he learned that Stanford hadn't given me a doctorate for the for the help public key work and it's not for the usual reason that I said marty was talking about trying to get me to be quote all but courses because I I was there for years it took four courses and I wrote four papers and forgotten what four courses were I'm making a living off the papers ever since so it happened that electrical engineering unlike computer science might be if we'd been in computer science I probably would have been alright because it didn't have much by way of course requirements and might well have been willing to rave what they were but Electrical Engineering liked courses and expected to take a lot of courses and I take courses I'm great on the first three days and then I get behind and then I lose you know that stopped coming to class and the I'll tell you one thing that bothers me about this interview is that I had failed to put on my wedding ring which I have never worn all the time because it I found it psychologically comfortable just physically uncomfortable particularly when I'm typing so I will add that to my well though it's more or less here okay then you only won't see you can Photoshop it back into all of the ers on your life right yeah I'm not a pretty demanding guy what you can do is you could just start using your left hand to gestural I've I've also been using my right I don't pay any attention so you were asking you know what I would tell 25 year olds about their careers and I suspect I've faced different problems I can tell you know I what I did that almost exactly 25 I say my one thing I had good luck simultaneously we lost the money for the math lab project that's complicated politics of the rules about how much the how much could be spent on minor and things of that kind and it drifted off to my team became the maximal project and maybe I could have stayed and worked on that but I thought I had become interested in proof of correctness of programs I thought and still think basis that's the most important problem in contemporary engineering and John McCarthy was the person who understood that problem at the time and he came to town and I talked to him and he had an opening in the fall and I went to work for him so that's why I went out to Stanford the and so is that you know well that kind of thing I suppose will happen to people that is your projects fundings go away and things like that but there's something in that I mean we old farts all say because we got away with it do what interest you do what you love work on problems that you can't can't avoid working on and I think you know in certain circumstances people say correctly you know that's kind of an idealistic thing but insofar as you can do that I think you probably should however I'm also where the world has changed a lot so I don't know how to put that you know I'm not sure that's much help to these people in putting that into action you're right that's the number one thing that every laureate has agreed on or content that interests you well I think it means we got away with it that's what we got into this position buddy yeah all right I mean that that's an important point that and but I don't know I don't know how to make it at all objective do anything again we're running late is there anything else that you'd like to add well I don't remember anything so I we have another two minutes session sometime later after I think of something okay well if you if you see me running around you say you've got to record this but I think very few
I'm very I think very few people realize the role that lock plays in their success and I mean I know a number of other people like ivan sutherland agree with me about that and I think there's this very famous thing I heard attributed to Kenny was first name golfer named Jones but I'm not all he's 19 20 or something that's not not uh but and I was told this by dick LIBOR who was formerly head of research at NSA and the fanatical golfer and then in his 70s he shot in the low seventies and so in any event he said this guy was a reporter I think said to him boy that was that was you were pretty lucky and he said yeah it's funny the harder I work harder I practice the luckier I get and I think that you know you can't deny the the truth of that right and so I think through a bunch of people around here whose hard work is a lot of their luck I can never detect the now I almost very few periods in my life when I feel like it didn't you know be so hard work because I feel incapable working on anything that that doesn't you know they don't just can't because I don't work on because I can't keep myself from working on so I spent in you know in you you know you never got to asking me what the most important five I think you were going to happen or didn't answer what's the most important five years of my life were and they're approximately say from 1973 to 1978 or 72 to 78 that in in certain that in August 72 I was rescued from proof of correctness by the discoverer of accidental discovery of cryptography and we haven't that that's described in many interviews and we haven't got time to run over it now but in the spring of 73 I left on an indefinite leave of absence and began traveling around the country digging up rare manuscripts and libraries looking for people who are willing to talk and thinking about these problems and I guess I've always been the one who I like working in I work in cafes now I went around to visit people at colleges and I worked you know sat around the cafeterias and worked I had always done that so then as I put it I made my first discovery I met my wife and I would not have discovered any of the other discoveries I think without that because not only not only people always talk about how their wives supported them and so forth that's one very important thing she had any rational faith in me and later she had at times an equally irrational lack of faith in me right that's the way your times and relationships go but that's one thing the other point was everybody loved her and that made that just opened up relationships right I mean thinks she's utterly critical in my relationship with Marty Hellman and the first day I met Marty Hellman we continued talking you know for an hour after the appointed time he had to go home for dinner he invited us over to dinner she called in she'd been taking the car off and gone somewhere and we told her how to get the Marty's place so she came by I remember how that worked but we're there we talked until 11:00 at night and has families we got along very well well suppose that haven't been to as well as I've been loans was have been with somebody abrasive like my previous partner then you know I think all of that might not might not have happened and Marty and my night I might not have worked together for this incredibly
productive four years
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Metadata

Formal Metadata

Title 5th HLF – Interviews with mathematics and computer science laureates: Whitfield Diffie
Title of Series 5th Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF), 2017
Author Diffie, Whitfield
License No Open Access License:
German copyright law applies. This film may be used for your own use but it may not be distributed via the internet or passed on to external parties.
DOI 10.5446/40129
Publisher Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation
Release Date 2018
Language English

Content Metadata

Subject Area Information technology, Mathematics
Abstract Laureates at the 5th HLF sit down with Tom Geller, Tom Geller Productions, to discuss their career, mentoring and their experience at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF). These renowned scientists have been honored with most prestigious awards in mathematics and computer science: Abel Prize, ACM A.M. Turing Award, ACM Prize in Computing, Fields Medal and Nevanlinna Prize. 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. Background: The Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation (HLFF) annually organizes the Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF), which is a networking event for mathematicians and computer scientists from all over the world. The HLFF was established and is funded by the German foundation the Klaus Tschira Stiftung (KTS), which promotes natural sciences, mathematics and computer science. The HLF is strongly supported by the award-granting institutions, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM: ACM A.M. Turing Award, ACM Prize in Computing), the International Mathematical Union (IMU: Fields Medal, Nevanlinna Prize), and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters (DNVA: Abel Prize). The Scientific Partners of the HLFF are the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS) and Heidelberg University.

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