Tuesday, April 02, 2013

An Evening Celebrating Science

Last week was the annual Science Development Program Dinner at BBN.  The SDP is a complex and unusual institution at the company, one of the things that I think makes it pretty unique.  Generally speaking, it's an umbrella promoting all of the more academic-style aspects of the company, like journal publication, hosting visiting scientists, running seminar series, teaching university courses and supervising students, professional service on committees and editorial boards.  It also runs the pseudo-tenure process for promotion on our scientific career track, a set of senior ranks parallel to the management track.

I think the SDP is a very important thing for keeping the culture of BBN, riding on the edge it does between academia and more traditional industry.  And once a year, the company throws a party to celebrate its scientific side, and to reflect on where we have been and where we are going, scientifically.  Everybody who has done significant SDP activity in the past year is invited, and over the course of the program we hear about it all.

This year, we also remembered Wally Feurzeig, who just passed away after 50 years of AI research at BBN.  He was somebody who touched my life decades before I even knew his name, as one of the inventors of the LOGO programming language, which I spent many happy hours making pictures with in elementary school, without even realizing the ways it was teaching me about algorithms.  I also heard a story about one of our founders, Leo Beranek, long ago "retired" but still working on his own as a scientist at age 98: he will apparently be presenting a couple of papers at the same Acoustical Society conference as my wife in a couple of months, not as some sort of "aged and distinguished speaker" talk, but as ordinary peer-reviewed scientific papers.

I find these things inspiring.  I find the whole event inspiring, in the way that it invites me to step back from the hustle and bustle of daily deadlines and the money chase, and to renew myself at the well of scientific thought and the importance of inquiry for lasting impact and also for its own sake.  It's an important part of why I am working where I am, and what brings other people I want to work with there as well.
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