|Dear Theory Bloggers: Please Remember that the Public is Watching
||[Nov. 11th, 2010|10:29 pm]
Of the subfields of Computer Science research, Theory probably has the most active blog presence. This is great, but it has had some unintended consequences — while theorists (naturally) blog for an audience of their peers, the general public watches on with considerable interest and, regrettably, confusion.
The interest is no doubt due to the mythical status of the P vs NP question. But we shouldn't forget that like most mathematical conjectures, the resolution of P vs NP will mean remarkably little for the everyday lives of people (unless, of course, the unthinkable happens and it is resolved negatively.)
There are two problems with the glut of media and public interest in a problem that is of great consequence to the internal progress of the field but little significance to the outside world. The first is that due to the esoteric nature of the problem and especially the methods used, there is the risk that onlookers will lose interest in the entire field.
The second, and the one I want to talk about, is that the community loses the opportunity to tell the public about theory research that is of far broader significance. Questions that combine deep theory with real-world application are everywhere in theoretical computer science, ranging from the somewhat philosophical (can random coin flips speed up a computer?) to the heavily commercial (the theory of auctions).
I'm not asking theory bloggers to write for the general public, although a post every once in a while would be fantastic. But there are two things that can be done with little extra effort:
This humble suggestion was brought to you by my having to explain to some confused people that the recent separation proof by Ryan Williams is being celebrated mainly for the proof techniques and has little or no relevance to non-theorists. And I still remember excited commenters on web forums telling each other how PRIMES is in P was going to speed up cryptography.
- add one or two sentences to posts about new results describing why it matters, in a language that makes sense to outsiders
- when contacted by the media, gently nudge them to write about research that can be understood by the public, and give them pointers to do so.
 When I say the public, I mean the subset of the public that is interested in science and computation.
 Ryan's work is by all accounts awesome, and I do not mean to detract from it in any way.