The Simons Foundation, which specializes in science and math research, has chosen the University of California, Berkeley, as host for an ambitious new center for computer science, the university plans to announce on Tuesday.
The foundation’s $60 million grant to establish the center, to be called the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at U.C. Berkeley, underscores the growing influence of computer science on the physical and social sciences. An interdisciplinary array of scientists will explore the mathematical foundations of computer science and attack problems in fields as diverse as health care, astrophysics, genetics and economics.
“We’ve been talking to astronomers, climate scientists, fluid mechanics people, quantum physicists and cognitive scientists,” said Richard M. Karp, a Berkeley computer scientist who will be the institute’s director.
Part science and part engineering, computer science has long been viewed warily by scientists in other disciplines. But that is changing, not only because the computer has become the standard scientific instrument but also because “computational thinking” offers new ways to analyze the vast amounts of data now accessible to scientists. This new approach — what researchers call the “algorithmic” or “computational” lens — is transforming science in much the way the microscope and telescope did. When computer scientists train their sights on other disciplines, said Christos H. Papadimitriou, a Berkeley computer scientist who will help manage the institute, “truths come out that wouldn’t have come out otherwise.”
Moreover, the flood of experimental results generated by inexpensive sensors, combined with the Internet’s ubiquitous connectivity, is threatening to drown scientists in vast data sets often called “big data.”
“I do think there is this idea that big data is happening,” said Peter Norvig, Google’s director of research. “Now there is more acceptance pencil and paper alone won’t solve all of our problems.”
Tuesday’s announcement is part of a broader trend toward expanding support for research in computational theory. The Rafik B. Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science and Engineering was created last fall at Boston University to turn a computational lens on an array of disciplines. (It is named for the former Lebanese prime minister who was assassinated in 2005; he was also a former trustee of the university.)
“It’s analytics with big data, it’s the ability to compute and analyze in massive parallel architectures,” said Jeannette M. Wing, head of the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University. “All the science and engineering disciplines realize this is part of the future.”
Dr. Karp, the Simons Institute’s new director, cited the example of the Berkeley cosmologist Joshua Bloom, who has automated the process of identifying interesting events in the night sky. Each evening the system must choose from millions of options.
“What should we track tomorrow?” Dr. Karp said. “There is a continually changing decision process. It’s an online computation process par excellence.”
The institute will not be a scientific computing center, said Alistair Sinclair, a Berkeley computer scientist who will serve as its associate director. “An astronomer won’t come along with data and we all sit down and create algorithms to process his data,” he said. “It goes deeper than that. The astronomer will come and talk about the nature of his problems.”
The institute will have about 70 visiting researchers at any one time, including faculty members, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students. It will begin operating later this year and be fully operational in 2013.
The Simons Foundation, created by the hedge fund billionaire and philanthropist James H. Simons, has given hundreds of millions of dollars for research in autism, math and physical sciences, and life sciences — and, last year, $150 million from both the organization and its founders to Stony Brook University on Long Island.
Dr. Simons, who earned his doctorate in mathematics at Berkeley, was chairman of the math department at Stony Brook before creating Renaissance Technologies, a private investment firm. Forbes magazine estimates his current worth at $10.6 billion.