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Dad, mom join son to form a potent computer science team at CMU

Sunday, October 21, 2001

By Byron Spice, Science Editor, Post-Gazette

Avrim Blum's life story sounds like the setup for a TV sitcom.

Brilliant student graduates from top university and is deluged with job offers. Joins a hot computer science school where he is a rising star. He and physician wife start a family. Life is sweet.

Then his parents move in.

Lenore, Avrim and Manuel Blum on the CMU campus. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)
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Professor Mom takes the office on one side of him, Professor Dad takes an office on the other. Son is caught up in parents' well-meaning meddling both at work and at home. Hilarity ensues.

Think "Everybody Loves Avrim."

But the reality, he will tell you, is much different.

Mom is Lenore Blum, 58, a distinguished computer scientist and a nationally known advocate for women in mathematics. Dad is Manuel Blum, 63, a legendary figure in the field of theoretical computer science and winner of the Turing Award, the computer science equivalent of the Nobel.

And far from causing trouble or embarrassment, his parents are Avrim's colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University and, on some projects, his collaborators.

"It's fun now that they're here," said Avrim, 35, who joined Carnegie Mellon as soon as he earned his doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology 10 years ago. "It's always been a positive thing."

"I'm not sure I'd want to be Avrim," said Gary Miller, another Carnegie Mellon computer scientist, "but he's such an easy-going guy. It seems to be working. ... Now and then, we ask Avrim how it's going and he always seems happy."

The recruitment of Manuel and Lenore Blum, once happily ensconced in Berkeley, Calif., to the Carnegie Mellon computer science school two years ago was considered a coup, capping almost 20 years of effort.

Carnegie Mellon has long been known for its expertise in applied computer science, such as robotics, language translation and programming languages, but the hiring of the Blums immediately added luster to the school's reputation for computer science theory. All three Blums are theoretical computer scientists, though each specializes in different niches, such as logic, machine learning and cryptography.

Aladdin's lamp

A measure of their impact came last month, when Carnegie Mellon garnered a $24 million share of the National Science Foundation's $156 million Information Technology Research program. Of the 14 Carnegie Mellon projects to receive funding, the largest was a $5.5 million award for Aladdin, which includes Manuel, Lenore and Avrim Blum among its investigators.

The brainchild of Guy Blelloch, Aladdin is designed to match theoreticians' latest problem-solving methods -- called algorithms -- with pressing problems in industry. "It often takes 20 or 30 years for a new theoretical advance to make it into a real-world application," Blelloch said. Aladdin is trying to accelerate that process.

A $5 million grant is unusually large for theoretical work, said James Morris, dean of the computer science school. That reflects the project's merits, but Morris and others said the presence of the Blums helped ensure its approval. Lenore Blum is co-directing the project with Blelloch, and Manuel Blum, the senior leader of Carnegie Mellon's algorithms group, has embraced its aims.

Aladdin's first success, in fact, was an algorithm from Manuel's group that was put to use last month by the Web portal Yahoo to keep automated programs from registering for e-mail addresses and scanning chat rooms.

Manuel also has embraced Carnegie Mellon and Pittsburgh, where he and Lenore live in a house on Devonshire Road across from the campus. Earlier this month, he accepted the first Dr. Bruce J. Nelson Chair in Computer Science, which honors the late chief science officer of Cisco Systems, who was a Carnegie Mellon graduate.

"I've always thought this was the place to be," Manuel said. It's a statement that is hard to square with the 30 years he spent at the University of California, Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon's previously deflected entreaties.

But that sentiment is sincere, insisted Avrim, who said he chose to come to Carnegie Mellon in part because of his father's recommendation.

"Manuel has a romantic attachment to the university," he said.

Love in Caracas

The romance began in Caracas, Venezuela, where Manuel and Lenore grew up.

Manuel's parents had fled Europe ahead of the Holocaust and, unable to get into the United States, settled in Caracas.

His father, a jeweler and expert watchmaker, came from the town of Chernovtsy, then part of Romania, but in a border region that often changed hands (it is now part of Ukraine). The joke was that the people of Chernovtsy spoke the language of whoever won the last war. Manuel grew up in Caracas speaking German.

When encountering Spanish, Manuel recalls, he was bewildered by the speed at which natives spoke. "I thought I was very stupid," he said. "Other people were speaking so quickly." And so Manuel began to wonder how it is that the brain works.

"I thought if I could only understand how the brain works, I could be smarter," he said. It set him on a course that would lead him to the field of computer science. But when he left Caracas for the United States in the mid-1950s to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology, no such field existed. So he pursued his interest in the electrical activity of the brain by studying electrical engineering, then switched to neurobiology.

Lenore didn't reach Caracas until she was 9, moving with her family from New York City in the 1950s. Unfamiliar with Spanish and initially unhappy in school, she persuaded her parents to let her take a year off. When she returned to school, her class was being taught long division. She found it fascinating, beginning her lifelong love of mathematics.

Manuel was five years older, but he became her "secret person," a confidant with whom she could discuss psychology, logic and a whole range of topics that her schoolmates couldn't comprehend. They had their first date when Manuel took Lenore to her high school prom.

Following the advice of a high school teachers, she decided to study architecture, not mathematics, in college. Unable to gain admission to MIT, where Manuel was a graduate student, Lenore headed for the Carnegie Institute of Technology.

But after her first year at Carnegie Tech, she realized that math remained her true interest. She switched majors and ended up in an experimental mathematics class taught by Alan Perlis, a pioneer who would establish the computer science department at Carnegie Tech and, later, at Yale University.

The Berkeley move

It was one of the first computer science courses in the nation, and Lenore would make copies of Perlis' homework assignments for Manuel. He, in turn, would mimeograph the assignments and hand them out to his friends at MIT, many of whom went on to distinguished careers in computing.

"We all ended up taking Alan Perlis' course," Manuel recalled.

Between the long-distance introduction to computer science and his visits to Pittsburgh to see Lenore, Manuel had become convinced that Carnegie Mellon was a special place.

Lenore later joined Manuel, by then her husband, at MIT. "I was a grad student at MIT when Avrim was born," she said. "I finished grading exams on the last day of class and then went directly to the hospital."

In 1968, they moved to Berkeley, where Manuel had a job offer and Lenore took a post-doctoral fellowship.

At Berkeley, Manuel, Richard Karp and the late Eugene Lawler would form the core of the theoretical computer science group.

Manuel tackled a wide range problems, such as developing methods for measuring the intrinsic complexity of problems -- determining how many steps, or how much computer memory, a given type of problem would require. He developed what's called the Blum axioms, which can be used to determine whether complex problems are even solvable by computer. He pioneered the development of "program checking," a way to mathematically determine whether a program will do what it's supposed to do.

And he explored cryptographic questions, such as how two parties who don't trust each other and don't want to share information can transact business without a third party.

Manuel also became renowned as a mentor, both for a supportive, Socratic style that endeared him to his students, and for turning out students who almost uniformly have become leaders in the field.

"One day I was complaining to him about how my students were too dumb to understand something," said Karp, a fellow Turing Award winner. "He said to me, 'You know, you may be better than them at what you do, but each of them can probably do something better than you.' He had a respect, almost a reverence for people."

'Will you marry us?'

When Steven Rudich was searching for a graduate program in the mid-1980s, he sent examples of his work around to a number of scientists at several universities, many of whom never even bothered to look at them. "Manuel called me up and said, 'Oh, this is wonderful. Come and work with me at Berkeley.'"

"I had never had an experience with a teacher that positive," said Rudich, now a Carnegie Mellon professor. "He will treat his students, even when they start, with respect, as a colleague. There really is no one else like him in computer science. ... He doesn't just show you by example; he's there alongside you."

When Rudich introduced his fiancee to Manuel, she found him so charming that she wanted him to conduct their marriage ceremony. "She said, 'I want to be married by a mensch,' " he recalled. "So I said, 'Manuel, will you marry me?' " Manuel agreed and sent $50 to an outfit called the Universal Life Church Inc. to obtain certification as a minister.

Avrim is an example of Manuel's teaching methods and of Lenore's. "I remember getting quizzed on stuff they were going to put on tests," Avrim said. "They'd be at the kitchen table working on this stuff. I saw them enjoying their work, intellectually interesting work. I got sucked into it."

Once, in eighth grade, he became so obsessed by a problem Manuel had given him, something involving dividing a cake, that he missed his bus stop.

Many children of accomplished parents seek out different professions just to avoid the seemingly inevitable comparisons and expectations. "Those tensions," Karp said, "just didn't exist in that family."

Lenore's own career was less meteoric, in part because of resistance at Berkeley to hiring women mathematicians. She was amazed when she arrived in Berkeley to discover that one of her mathematical heroes, Julia Robinson, wasn't on the Berkeley faculty as she had assumed. Robinson lived in Berkeley but couldn't get hired by the University of California. Only years later, after Robinson became the first woman mathematician inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, was the university shamed into offering her a full professorship.

Lenore became an early member of the Association for Women in Mathematics and has continued to be a leading advocate for increasing the involvement of women in the field and in computer science. She created and headed a department of mathematics and computer science at Mills College, a women's college in Oakland, Calif. In 1992, she became deputy director of the Mathematical Sciences Institute in Berkeley.

Coming home

The road that finally led to Pittsburgh began with a detour to Hong Kong in 1996. Lenore went to Hong Kong to work with a colleague on a book and took a visiting professorship at the University of Hong Kong. Manuel came along and learned to speak fluent Cantonese.

The couple had been happy in Berkeley -- "Everybody loves Berkeley," Lenore said -- but the Hong Kong sojourn changed things. "We found we had a life outside of Berkeley. That was a real eye opener."

So when Morris offered the latest invitation to join the Carnegie Mellon faculty, the Blums were ready. Moving to Carnegie Mellon would place them in a leading computer science school, reunite them with their son, bring them close to their grandchildren -- Alex, 7, and Aaron, 5 -- and give Lenore an opportunity to pursue her goal of increasing the number of women entering computer science and mathematics.

The percentage of women entering computer science programs has been plummeting in the past decade, Lenore said. But at Carnegie Mellon, where a major push is under way, the percentage of women entering computer science has increased from 7 percent in 1995 to almost 40 percent this year.

"She's just a bundle of energy," Morris said. "In the end, Lenore may become the most famous Blum here."

Manuel and Lenore aren't so sure. "You'll see," Lenore said. "We're going to be known as Avrim's parents."

"We feel comfortable here," Lenore said, though they were slow to unpack when they discovered that their assigned offices were, indeed, side by side on the fourth floor of Wean Hall. "It was just too cute," she added.

But now they are settled, cute or not.

"A lot of our life is tied up with our work," Lenore said. "Our colleagues are our friends. And Avrim is a good friend of ours."

"This is our family business."

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