The Science of Computers
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May 25, 2012
The Science of Computers
Trinity University professor embraces hard questions that might not have an answer
SAN ANTONIO - A glance at his list of courses taught presents a puzzle - what, exactly, does Trinity University professor Paul Myers teach?
Computers and Society could place him in the sociology and anthropology department. Ditto with Women and Textiles, or maybe that's in Women and Gender Studies. A logics course would land him in philosophy. And Intro to Cognitive Science surely sounds like neuroscience. What about Computers for Business - is that a business administration course?
The answer is that Myers is a Renaissance man - one with expertise in a significant number of subjects, but rest assured - he is most at home in his computer science classroom.
Currently the chair of Trinity's computer science department, Myers loves the discipline for its ability to provoke deep thinking. Certainly the computer is used to communicate via e-mail, to compose essays, to pay bills, and to book airplane travel, but he says it also raises hard questions, such as "Are there limitations to computation?" or "Could artificial intelligence be applied to artistic appreciation?"
His personal favorite is what he calls "the Traveling Salesman" question, which, for example, asks for the shortest possible route for a person to visit each of the 50 state capitals. The answer, it turns out, does not exist - yet. It might surface in what Myers describes as several trillion centuries. "But the universe hasn't lived long enough (for computer scientists) to compute the answer," he explains.
The field of computer science cannot answer every problem with a definitive answer, which is one of the discipline's attractions to Myers, who specializes in theoretical computer science. "I'm not going to say computer science doesn't have the potential to solve problems, but it is the one discipline where we rigorously study how hard it is to solve a problem."
When he developed the Women and Textiles course, Myers envisioned it as an upper-level, multi-disciplinary course in which science majors could contribute their knowledge of dyes and plant materials, music majors could share details of weaving songs, and economics majors could describe the commerce of selling hand-made textiles. "Every discipline had something to say - art, anthropology, the mathematics of design, and so on," Myers said. So where did computer science fit?
"The thing the makes computers powerful is the ability to program," he explained. "It is a universal 'machine' that operates through the software you put into it. Another universal 'machine' is the mind. The Jacquard loom was the first programmable machine." The loom was the first machine to use punched cards to control a sequence of operations, an important step in the history of computing hardware and an obvious component of the textiles course.
For the last five years, Myers has been involved with a citywide effort to attract the headquarters of the 24th Air Force to San Antonio through the Cyber Innovation and Research Consortium. San Antonio is No. 2 in the nation in terms of security, only behind Washington, D.C., Myers said, adding that several universities in town are supporting cyber-defense and cyber-security enterprises. For example, he is trying to integrate security into Trinity's computer science curriculum, saying, "We need to get students more aware of how sloppy coding can lead to security breaches."
- Computers & Society
- Automata Theory
- Analysis of Algorithms
- Theory of Computation
- Intro to Cognitive Science
- Logic Programming
- Principles of Theoretical Computer Science
- Provability / Foundations of Mathematics
- Principles of Software Engineering
- Information Assurance & Security
- Women & Textiles
Selected Publications and Technical Reports
- "Taming the Diversity of Information Assurance & Security," with Sandra Riela, IAS consultant and Trinity University alumna, The Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges, Vol. 23, No. 4, April 2008.
- "A Content Functional Approach To Intelligence in Robotic Systems," with Gerald N. Pitts, Alan D. Brock, and Kent B. Landrum, Modeling and Simulation, 2002 International Conference on Modeling and Simulation: International Association of Science and Technology for Development, May 2002.
- "The Eight-Minute Halting Problem," ACM SIGSCS Bulletin, Vol. 30, No. 2, June 1998.
- "Historical Perspectives on the Computing Curriculum," with Michael Goldweber, John Impagliazzo, et al., Integrating Technology into Computer Science Education, ITiCSE 97, Uppsala, Sweden, Fall 1997.
- Constructivity in Computer Science, (edited with M.J. O'Donnell), lecture notes in Computer Science No. 613, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 1992.