Insights: Graph Theory and Teatime; March 2007; Scientific American Magazine; by Gary Stix; 2 Page(s)
Every weekday afternoon some 20 mathematicians and theoretical computer scientists gather in the Seattle suburbs to share tea. The conversation runs from the latest on number theory to the fairest way to decide a closely contested election. The gathering spot is not the faculty lounge of an elite university but rather a meeting area in Building 113, the nondescript glass and steel structure that houses the Theory Group of Microsoft Research.
A decade ago two mathematical physicists--Jennifer Chayes and Christian Borgs--gave up permanent academic positions for the allure of being able to go out and hire the best minds in discrete mathematics, statistical physics and theoretical computer science. By most measures, the pair have succeeded in recreating the rarefied world of a top university department, right down to the tea ritual. In essence, the group resembles a smaller version of the Mathematical Sciences Research Center in its heyday at the old Bell Labs, home to Claude E. Shannon, Richard Hamming, Narendra Karmarkar and other quantitative luminaries, before corporate upheavals ultimately forced a scaling back. "It would be very hard, if not just impossible, for a university to assemble such a group within a 10-year time frame," remarks Bart Selman, professor of computer science at Cornell University and also a former Bell Labs researcher. "Clearly, Microsoft resources play a role here."