BU computer scientist among 100 new US members elected
Leonid Levin, a BU College of Arts & Sciences professor of computer science, is an expert on a range of things, from complex algorithms to information theory. He has read all the Game of Thrones books and thinks quantum computing is a hoax. One quick look at his website, and it’s clear Levin has bold stances on democracy and taxes and is also quite humble about his numerous theories and discoveries that have shaped modern computational science. According to Levin, the most crucial point in his career was emigrating to the United States from the Soviet Union.
Now, in recognition of his contributions to the field of computer science, he’s been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization of the country’s leading researchers.
BU Today: How did you first become interested in computer science and mathematics?
Levin: As a kid I was interested in chemistry—explosions and such. Then I found I cannot fully understand chemistry without physics. Later I saw that to deeply understand physics, I need (to understand) math. Then I concluded that to really understand math, I must study its foundations in logic. Mathematical logic turned out to be based on the notions of computability.
When did you know that this field would become a lifelong career?
I was selected among the winners of math Olympiads to attend special university-run high schools in Kiev, and then later, Moscow. There I met my future advisor, a great mathematician named Andrey Kolmogorov. The rest was his influence. As a teacher myself, now I feel overjoyed when I see students getting interested in studying the material at a level higher than what is required.
What was the most meaningful moment of your career?
The absolute most crucial point in my career was crossing the border of the Soviet Union 40 years ago. In a moment, I turned from being a communist slave into a free human. Nothing in my life compares with this experience.
What was that journey like?
With my wife, Larissa, we went on a train to Vienna, stayed there a week, and then spent a summer in Italy, while our US entry permission was being prepared. Finally, I received an invitation from MIT, where we went in September 1978.
What initially drew you to teaching?
I admired my teachers, and was very lucky to have the ones that I did. Like many young people, I wanted to imitate them. However, I had serious problems with communist authorities and was warned not to seek a teaching job, as I would be a bad influence on the political loyalty of students. In the United States, I finally had the right to teach, but first had to improve my English. After two years at MIT, BU invited me for a teaching job, in 1980.
Since we are living in such an algorithm-driven world, what do you think the future of the internet will look like?
I expect (fear, not hope) that it will turn into something that far exceeds our human intelligence. But we still have some time to live.
Do you have advice for the next generation of computer scientists?
It is not worth spending four years of your life and your parents’ savings to just get training for your first job. Study things that will last you a lifetime.
Jessica Colarossi can be reached at [email protected].
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