What To Take Away From The #HLF16

20160922-img_7497From 18-23 Sep 2016, I had the privilege to join approx. 200 young researchers and 21 laureates of the most prestigious awards in Mathematics and Computer Science at the 4th Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF). Similar to the Lindau Nobel Meetings, it intends to bring together and seed the exchange between the past and the future generations of researchers.

I thought that it is worthwhile writing up the experience from someone with my background and perspective which is the following: I am a member of the HLF foundation council and could therefore join this illustrous event. I hold a master degree from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and a PhD from Edinburgh University, both in CS. For almost 18 years, I have been working for SAP in development, most of the time confronted with high performance problems of CS in general and DBMS in particular. So, generation- and careerwise, I’m somewhere inbetween the two focus groups of the HLF.

The Setup

… was excellent: there were lectures by the laureates during the morning and breakout events (panels, workshops, poster sessions and the like) in the afternoon. Inbetween, there were ample breaks for people to mingle, talk to each other, exchange ideas, make contacts and/or friends, basically everything to nourish creativity, curiosity and inspiration. Many years ago, a friend commented: “At conferences, breaks are as important as the scheduled events; presentations are there only to seed topics for lively discussions during the breaks.”. I think HLF is an excellent example implementing that notion.

Meeting People

20160920-img_7417Over the course of the week, I have talked to many attendees and to both, young researchers and laureates. Topics circled – as in the presentation – around the past and the future, lessons learned on past problems in order to tackle the coming problems. Sir Andrew Wiles did a great job in his lecture on how people tried to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem until after more than 300 years a new approach was triggered which he finally led to a successful end. Similarly, Barbara Liskov chose to talk about the lessons learned in the early 1970s when early versions of modularity and data abstraction made it into modern programming languages which finally led to object orientation.

On Wed morning of the “HLF week”, a group of them visited SAP. The young researchers learned about opportunities at SAP while the laureates were exposed to a demo of SAP’s digital boardroom. Also on this occasion, good questions and discussions came up.

The Presentations

20160923-img_7501The lectures given by the laureates were mostly excellent. I’ve decided to pick 3 which I personally enjoyed most, 1 of each discipline:

  • Mathematics: Sir Michael Atiyah is 95 years old. He took advantage of the fact that as a laureate you don’t have to prove to anyone anything and, thus, can take a few steps back and look at the research in your area from a distance. His lecture on the “The Soluble and the Insoluble” discusses this as “both a philosophical question, and a practical one, which depends on what one is trying to achieve and the means, time and money available. The explosion in computer technology keeps changing the goal posts.”

  • Computer Science: Raj Reddy picked “Too Much Information and Too Little Time” as a topic. Amongst others, he pointed to cognitive science and that modern software needs to take human limitations (make errors, forget, impatience, “go for least effort” etc) and strengths (tolerance of ambiguity + imprecision + errors, rich experience and knowledge, natural language) far more into account.

  • Physics: Brian Schmidt gave the Lindau Lecture on the “State of the Universe”. I am no expert in astrophysics but, still, there has been a lot of fascinating facts and “aha effects” in it. It is amazing what science can do.

There is a lot more material from this and previous events. If you are interested in finding out more details, you might want to look at the HLF website where you also find more video recordings of the laureates’s lectures.

This has been cross-published on Linkedin. You can follow me on Twitter via @tfxz.

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