One of the more memorable courses I took at Carnegie Mellon was Manuel Blum’s algorithms.

The CSD made it a mandatory course for some major (I don’t know about this since I was just fucking around for the most part).

It is a little known secret that you don’t attend Manuel’s course to learn about algorithms - you can learn quite well by opening a book.

You attend to watch a genius combine expertise, brilliance, and passion.

When I took the course, Manuel wanted to get up to speed with machine learning. As of 2014 Manuel had won the Turing award, his students shared among them three Turing awards, founded new fields in computer science like Quantum Computing, and founded successful companies which went on to become cultural phenomena - ReCaptcha and Duolingo among them.

Manuel’s course essentially involved delivering a lecture on a topic of your choice - I made a proper horlicks of my talk. However, it inspired a lively blog post and visualization here.

I was pretty excited to meet Manuel in person. Back in high school I was avid follower of Scott Aaronson’s blog and he spoke highly of his advisor Umesh Vazirani. Manuel was Umesh’s advisor and it was a meeting-your-childhood-hero moment for me.

From the entire course, two things stood out:

  • Manuel is incredibly hard to lecture to. This is not a criticism, it is a harsh reminder that most academic talks are pathetic. Manuel placed immense emphasis on getting the axioms, the aphorisms and the fundamentals right. Opening a talk like you open an abstract was a sureshot way of getting asked a question two sentences in.
  • Manuel engaged heavily with students. Prior to World War II, a student was evaluated based on an oral examination by their instructors. My colleagues at work who were educated in Europe mention that this tradition is being preserved across the pond. Manuel believed in this interaction - education for him was a socratic dialogue.
  • Manuel randomly sampled material from tons of books - a technique that broadened his expertise and world-view immensely.

Manuel has tons of amazing advice for students on his website. Personally, when I took his course, due to a variety of circumstances, I had mentally checked out of CMU.

Manuel was the display of intellect I needed to not descend into deep cynicism about a life devoted to learning.

Twitter: @shriphani
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Fortior Per Mentem
(c) Shriphani Palakodety 2013-2020