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7 November 1997

"Good Luck, a Good Education and Fortunate Accidents"
Net Schock Prize for Hillman University Professor Dana Scott

Dana Scott began his education nearly 60 years ago in a one-room schoolhouse in northern California. At that time, no one could have dreamed he would become a world-famous scientist, honored by royalty for fundamental advances in an as-yet-unborn discipline called computer science.

Yet, there he was last month--Carnegie Mellon~s Hillman University Professor of Computer Science Mathematical Logic and Philosophy--in Stockholm to receive the 1997 Rolf Schock Prize in logic and philosophy from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Scott was being honored for his fundamental contributions in contemporary logic and most especially for creating domain theory, a mathematical theory used for explaining the meaning of advanced computer programming languages. Initiated in the early 1970s, the work has given scholars the mathematical tools to model computer programs and predict and analyze what they will do.

"Dana built a bridge between traditional mathematics and the semantics of programming languages," says Jim Morris, head of the Computer Science Department in SCS. "He identified a mathematical structure that would correspond to computer programs and produced a mathematical model for a simple language called Lambda Calculus. Until he did that, the Lambda Calculus (and all other programming languages) were understood only through mechanical means. It was as if our only understanding of conventional calculus was through the formal rules for differentiation and integration. Dana's models supply the analogues of real numbers, continuous functions, and the other apparatus that allow one to justify the formal rules."

"Scott's work completely changed people's thinking about how you'd use math and logic to reason about computer programs," says SCS associate professor Peter Lee. "Before domain theory, research into programming languages was pretty informal--something of a black art. But his work changed the field. The obligations of researchers to prove their work became mandatory."

"Aside from the tremendous scientific advances for which Dana is responsible, it's how he expresses himself that makes him so special," observes SCS associate professor Robert Harper. "The wonderful insights and implications of his work are represented in a breathtakingly elegant and captivating style. He is a paragon of clear writing and clear thought."

The $50,000 Schock prize and its accompanying citation were bestowed on Scott by Sweden~s Princess Christina. Then he and his wife Irene Schreier, an artist-lecturer in piano in Carnegie Mellon's Music Department, went off with other awardees to a gala dinner at the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts.

The award Scott received is one of four international prizes created in 1993 with a bequest from the estate of the late logician and philosopher Rolf Schock, who was killed in an accident at age 56. The prizes honor researchers in the areas of logic and philosophy, mathematics, visual arts and music--areas especially valued by Schock and which, incidentally, are not covered by the Nobel Prizes.

The Schock Prize is just one of many awards and honors Scott has received over the years. In 1957, while getting his doctor~s degree in mathematics at Princeton, he took a summer job at IBM's newly established T. J. Watson Research Center. There, he and a fellow student, Michael Rabin, now a professor at Harvard and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, developed a new approach to automata theory, the mathematical theory of machines. The results they described in their joint paper subsequently won them computing~s highest honor, the Turing Award, in 1976.

Scott has been a Carnegie Mellon faculty member since 1981. He came to the university following a decade as first professor of mathematical logic at Oxford University at the invitation of the late Nico Habermann, who was head of the (then) Computer Science Department. His influence on at least three departments here has been profound. Seven professors in mathematics, philosophy and computer science, along with more than a dozen graduate students, are currently doing research based on his work.

Scott's presence--along with that of Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon--helped to establish the university's new Philosophy Department in 1985. In computer science, he fostered the creation of the world-class Programming Languages Group, adding a theoretical dimension to a department that had heretofore focused mainly on applied work. "Dana is one of the best logicians of our time," says Wilfried Sieg, who heads the Philosophy Department. "His professional status has enabled us to attract a genuinely world-class group of logicians. There is nothing like it anywhere in the country."

"We all came here because of Dana," says Lee. "He is a father figure to all of us. He really cares about education and the whole concept of universities."

In addition to Oxford, Scott has worked and taught at some of the world~s most prestigious universities, including the University of California at Berkeley, Princeton University, Stanford University and the universities of Chicago, Amsterdam and Linz.

He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the British Academy. He holds honorary degrees from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany, and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Scott attributes his success to good luck, a good education and several fortunate accidents. He was born in Berkeley, Calif., in 1932, the only child of parents who never had opportunities for higher education during the Depression. His mother was a housewife, salesperson and in later years, a practical nurse. his father sold logging equipment all over the Pacific Northwest. They were divorced in 1938. Scott~s mother, who was a cheerleader for her son all of his life, passed away just a few months ago, shortly after learning he had received the Schock award. She was 92.

Starting from a very young age, much to the surprise of these 'fairly live wire" parents, as his mother once described herself and her husband, Scott was more interested in reading and thinking than more common childish pursuits. He spent time in his room with books and a blackboard, or in the basement tinkering with electrical equipment.

In 1945, Scott's mother remarried. The family moved to Chico, Calif., a prosperous agricultural community north of Sacramento, which greatly improved his educational opportunities. Scott loved music, as he does to this day, and at that time played clarinet in the high school band. When he asked his band teacher how the various instruments worked, the teacher gave him a rather technical book on musical acoustics to read.

"I had to teach myself some college-level mathematics to understand it," Scott recalls, "and that really set the course of my life."

When Scott was 16, his family moved to Sacramento, which gave him the chance to attend a first-rate high school and obtain a scholarship to Berkeley. He entered UC Berkeley as a math major in 1950 and came into contact with prominent professional mathematicians who helped to shape his future career.

A key influence at Berkeley was the Polish logician Alfred Tarski who, among many accomplishments had developed the idea of a compositional semantics for traditional logical languages. Scott adopted this approach in thinking about applying domain theory to computer languages.

"Tarski was an old-fashioned European professor who was very dictatorial in many ways," Scott recalls. "But his teaching inspired a large group of students and he molded my thinking completely."

Scott graduated from Berkeley with a degree in mathematics in 1954 and subsequently earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at Princeton in 1958. A succession of teaching positions at the University of Chicago, Berkeley and Stanford and a marriage to Irene followed.

From 1963-69, while Scott was at Stanford as an associate professor and professor of logic and mathematics, the university was just creating its famed computer science department. "Many people at Stanford were concerned with formal logic in mathematics, philosophy and linguistics," he recalls. "It was natural to bring logic to computer science. I was involved with several faculty and students there in thinking about applications in computer science."

A dramatic turning point in Scott's research career came in the summer of 1969. He attended a workshop in Vienna about a new field of programming language design and definition. There, he met the late Christopher Strachey, one of the pioneers in programming languages. A man with outspoken opinions, Strachey's influence on Scott's thinking was immediate and profound. During a sabbatical visit to Oxford that fall, Scott began to formulate a precise definition of denotational semantics within the beginnings of domain theory to carry out Strachey's conceptually formulated program. "This intense period of work," he says, "influenced the whole rest of my academic life."

But Scott insists that he himself was not a pioneer. "I'm an organizer of ideas and solver of mathematical problems," he says. "Other people were chopping down trees, and I was busy building them into log cabins."

In late 1969, Scott delivered three public lectures on his new approach. According to Peter Lee, they stunned the theoretical computer science community. People spent years trying to comprehend them and their consequences fully. Today Scott is revisiting domain theory and trying to make the material more accessible.

SCS professor John Reynolds remembers being in the audience at Oxford for Scott's second lecture. "It had a life-long impact on my own research," he remarks. "Dana introduced a new way to describe programming languages that was far more expressive and flexible than anything known before. In a deep sense, he showed how to say what a language meant, rather than just how it might be implemented on a computer."

Scott says Reynolds and many other researchers have made many contributions to and applications of the theory. And the work continues at many centers of research. Even today, Scott himself is revisiting the ideas and trying to make the material more accessible and usable.

In addition to his research, Scott has always been a strong advocate of good teaching. In recent years, he has become a proponent of using computer technology to improve teaching in the classroom.

"For the electronic medium to really succeed," he says, "there has to be far more hard thinking on what the best way is to use interactive, on-line resources. We must put real content into machine readable and processable form. It is not easy to shape complex ideas into bite size pieces for human consumption via computer, but to develop such material we must have an improved teaching environment where instructors and students can use the electronic medium easily and appropriately. Carnegie Mellon has made a lot of progress in this direction, but we need many more changes to integrate the computer fully into our curriculum."

While many people resist these changes, Scott believes they will be forced upon us--by economic forces, if nothing else. "We should do more to make computers work for our advantage, rather than fighting them," he says.

Looking back on almost 50 years of higher education, Scott feels the lesson of his life and career to date is that a person does not have to come from an academic family to be successful in academic studies.

"Talent can be found everywhere in society," he says. "What is needed is good schooling and good advice about how to take advantage of academic interests. I myself was exceptionally lucky to fall into the right track, but many others, equally deserving do not have this luck. It's hard to know when opportunity will strike. A person just has to keep an open mind and a sharp eye to take advantage of what luck brings. And we as teachers always have to help the new generations realize their potential."

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