Statement of Purpose

Stephen W. Nuchia

 

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off Orion’s shoulder. I watched C-beams glitter in the darkness near Tannhäuser Gate. All those memories will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die.

Blade Runner, 1982

Leaving Rice after my "first tour", I was propelled by an overwhelming sense that I was missing out on important events in the world of business. I left behind an academic record that might charitably be called "spotty". I was still waging a lingering, one-sided war against the educational establishment. I had serious financial trouble after giving up my Navy scholarship. And I was drinking way too much, way too often.

I found what I was looking for. In the years since then I have been present at the births and deaths of several businesses, including one of my own. I developed a product with my own hands and my own money that found customers as far away as Japan and Italy. One of my systems controls the detonation of explosives in oil wells; another collects neural impulses from lab animals. I’ve been on TV and on the cover of The Houston Press. I’ve been a founding member of two grass roots political action groups, an expert witness, and a panelist at technical and cultural events.

I found what I was looking for … The technical work still thrills me the way a running rabbit thrills a hound on a dewy fall morning. The more mixed pleasures of the business are still mixed pleasures. … but I find now that I have very little of lasting value to show for it. I made some lasting friendships; I launched a few careers. I helped make the internet revolution happen, whether that counts for or against me. … but the circumstances of my work have precluded publishing even those things I was given time to carry to some kind of completion. The choices I’ve made in my academic and professional career have left me an outsider everywhere I’ve been. … but enough. I have my memories. Time to begin my life work.

I owe a great part of whatever success I’ve had as a writer to help and encouragement Robert Heinlein gave me over the past thirty years. I once asked him how I could pay him back. His answer was simple: "You can’t. You pay it forward."

Jerry Pournelle, 1988

The outline of my life plan has included, for as long as I can remember having such an outline, spending the second half of my career teaching. When I make those lists of people I admire, teachers are always the dominant life form. If I refine the list to focus on the lives I admire, as opposed to those I admire for a specific accomplishment or talent, the pattern is even more striking; If we admit people like Gandhi and King as honorary teachers it is almost a monopoly. Stand and Deliver, Dead Poets Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and Children of a Lesser God are among my favorite movies. The most important thing I’ve done in the past year, by my reckoning, is the two hours a week I spent in a high school math class on the East Side of Austin.

What then shall I teach? I believe teaching high school would be deeply rewarding at a personal level, but after thinking about it long and hard I am not willing to make the financial and professional sacrifices required. At the university level the question is to which field I can realistically expect to contribute original work. Loath though I am to amputate all the pursuits in which I have an amateur interest it is perfectly clear to me that that field is computer programming.

We do not need to have an infinity of different machines doing different jobs. A single one will suffice. The engineering problem of producing various machines for various jobs is replaced by the office work of ‘programming’ the universal machine to do these jobs. […] virtually only a matter of paper work.

A.M. Turing, 1948

Computer programming is the most difficult branch of applied mathematics.

E.W. Dijkstra, 197?

How can these two points of view be reconciled? Did Turing, the somewhat reckless but profound visionary and the fulcrum on which three millennia of mathematics pivoted to give us the modern computer, not see what programming was about? Was Dijkstra, the field’s foremost curmudgeon and himself a formidable mathematician, a man shunned as much for being right as for being an ascetic idealist, merely grandstanding?

Experience is the answer. Within months of the Manchester computer becoming operational, Turing was using his time on it to obtain graphical output from embryology simulations. The idea of the electronic computer as an automated, ‘modern times’ version of the human computer — the assumption underlying Turing’s 1948 statement — was obsolete twenty years before Dijkstra made his pronouncement.

What we learned over those twenty years, the new paradigm that makes Dijkstra’s world so different from Turing’s, is that the programs we write are "an infinity of different machines". The engineering challenge of building them well — correctly, economically, and safely — is in essence no different from the challenge that faced our forebears in the age of steam and iron.

I intend to spend the rest of my working life contributing what I can to the evolution of the discipline of programming through teaching, research, and writing.

The Emperor, knowing that he was growing old, set out to tour his country one last time. Spying an unfamiliar tree some distance from the road, he ordered a halt and sent a servant to inquire what it might be. The servant returned with a farmer, the farmer with a basket of the tree’s fruit. The Emperor found the fruit delightful and asked the farmer whether the tree might grow at the palace. "It will grow," said the farmer, "but Alas! This tree takes twenty years to bear fruit." With that the Emperor thanked the farmer and took the basket, saying "Return to the palace at once! We haven’t a moment to lose!"

I have looked at going directly into a Ph.D. program in computer science but the long application lead times and a frank appraisal of my undergraduate record and available recommendations leaves me facing an unacceptable probability of wasting another year. So I have decided to pursue a Masters first. Given that, it seems that mathematics would be a good idea. I need more mathematics if I am to do first-rate work in computer science anyway, and my interactions in the past year with a mathematician colleague at AMD have renewed my intellectual interest in math for its own sake.

 

 

I have personal reasons for wanting to be in Tulsa for the next year or so. Having heard good things about the University of Tulsa (my business had an operation in Tulsa and I lived there for part of 1997) I looked into the graduate offerings a few weeks ago. I will confess I was initially disappointed that there was no research Masters offered in pure mathematics. Not that I need it, you understand, but if it had been there I would have felt compelled to die trying to climb it. In any event, I found myself becoming quite excited by what I read about the Applied Mathematics program. The curriculum seems to dovetail with my interests quite nicely. Also, the duration is finite and predictable, which will facilitate planning and applying for Ph.D. programs next fall. Finally, I came away from my meeting with Dr. Redner under the distinct impression that I might be allowed to serve as a teaching assistant.

It sounds like an altogether splendid way to spend the next eighteen months.

I have an exaggerated fondness for epigraphs and a debilitating weakness for complex sentence structures.

S.W. Nuchia, 1999