September 21, 2005

Computer Science Prof Wins MacArthur 'Genius Award'

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When Prof. Jon M. Kleinberg ’93, computer science, got a telephone call from someone who claimed to represent The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, he was skeptical. Kleinberg, the caller said, was to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, arguably the most coveted grant in the United States.

Could he the butt of some scheming academic’s cruel practical joke?

As the caller continued, Kleinberg, who devoted much of his early career at IBM to improving Internet search engines, went to Google and entered the nine-digit number that appeared on his Caller ID.

Sure enough, the messenger was legit. And Kleinberg was suitably shocked.

“It was a complete surprise,” Kleinberg said. “I don’t think I was really able to digest the news over the course of the phone call.”

Since 1981, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has used the unrestricted, “no-strings-attached” grant to recognize extraordinary achievement, creativity, potential and preeminence. Its near-universal nickname is the “Genius Award.” Each beneficiary is awarded $500,000, which he is allowed to spend however he chooses.

The selection process for the fellowship is top-secret. The MacArthur Foundation does not accept unsolicited nominations and recommendations; instead, invited experts, all of whom work for the Foundation anonymously, recommend colleagues from their respective, varied disciplines. A selection committee, whose membership is also unknown, culls a handful of winners from hundreds of recommendations.

According to the Foundation’s website, Kleinberg was recognized, in part, for his extensive research on network theory, a new cross-disciplinary field of study that he and several Cornell colleagues have pioneered.

According to Kleinberg, network theory is “an area that is springing up at the boundary of computer science, social science, and applied math, which is driven by the realization that lots of phenomena in everyday life, technology, and science are about networks.”

For instance, complex networks manifest themselves in people’s friendships, relationships with business associates and in molecular biology.

Kleinberg has come up with an algorithm that tries to answer the question of how pathways are found in networks. It can be applied to, among other things, peer-to-peer networks and online communities.

In an email to The Sun, Prof. Charles Van Loan, chair of the Department of Computer Science, emphasized the importance of Kleinberg’s work.

“By inventing the calculus, Newton and others made it possible for physicists to explain the natural world,” Van Loan wrote. “By advancing the state of ‘network science’ with inventive ideas and techniques, Jon and others are making it possible for computer scientists to explain the information world.”

As an undergraduate at Cornell, Kleinberg majored in mathematics and computer science. He gives credit to professors who willingly and often eagerly offered to mentor undergraduates.

“One thing I benefited from considerably was Cornell’s ongoing tradition of trying to involve undergraduates in research very early,” Kleinberg said. He said the computer science department “tries to encourage undergraduates as early as possible to start working on real problems.”

Today, many of his former professors are his colleagues and professional collaborators. He has welcomed the opportunity to work further with two in particular: Prof. Éva Tardos, computer science, and Prof. Daniel P. Huttenlocher, Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow and John P. and Rilla Neafsey Professor of Computing, Information Science and Business. He had studied under both of them in the early 90s.

“It’s amazing to be able to work with them as colleagues this many years later,” Kleinberg said. Kleinberg laughs about the MacArthur Fellowship’s nickname, which, he points out, is something that the media has played up. Van Loan, however, thinks the label fits.

“Genius is not about I.Q., although there is plenty of that with Jon,” Van Loan stated. “In our setting, it’s about research intuition, sharing ideas with students and bringing out the best in everybody who works in our department. Jon is off-scale in each of these directions.”

When asked about his plans for the prize money, Kleinberg said, “It’s a completely unexpected and very exciting opportunity, and I’m going to think carefully about how I’m going to use it.”

Archived article by David Austin Gura
Sun Senior Writer