SIAM News Blog

MATLAB Creator Cleve Moler Visits Texas A&M University

By Sourav Dutta

The Texas A&M University Chapter of SIAM had an impressive inaugural year. This April, with the enthusiastic support of the Department of Mathematics, the chapter took on the ambitious task of inviting Dr. Cleve Moler, the creator of MATLAB, to Texas A&M for the first time. Moler is the original author of MATLAB, and one of the founders of MathWorks. He is currently chairman and chief scientist of the company, as well as a member of the National Academy of Engineering and recipient of the 2012 IEEE Computer Pioneer Award and the 2014 IEEE John von Neumann Medal. Moler is also a past president of SIAM. In honor of this visit, the SIAM student chapter worked hard to organize a workshop showcasing the widespread application of MATLAB in research at Texas A&M, followed by a public lecture by Moler at the Hawking Auditorium of the Mitchell Physics Institute. Naturally, it was the most anticipated and biggest chapter event of the year.

Moler was hosted by his longtime friend and colleague, Dr. Tim Davis (Department of Computer Science & Engineering). The day began with a 1.5 hour campus tour in a golf cart, during which three excited students accompanied Moler. Kevin Andrews, Texas A&M’s very own campus connoisseur and Ph.D. student in Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communications, led the tour. Moler greatly enjoyed the tour and the brief anecdotes and campus trivia offered by Andrews, repeatedly expressing his admiration for the rich tradition and spirit of the University.

Cleve Moler and students at Texas A&M University tour the campus during his visit. Photo credit: Sourav Dutta.

Dr. Peter Howard (Graduate Director of Mathematics) kicked off the “Workshop on Scientific Computing with MATLAB at Texas A&M” with a warm welcome to Moler. The workshop featured a diverse set of presentations on topics such as biomedical imaging research, rehabilitation robotics, and cancer therapy design. Talks were divided into two sessions, both of which filled rooms to capacity. The highlight of the workshop was during a talk by Dr. Simon Foucart (Department of Mathematics) on compressed sensing research. An impressed Moler stated, “That was one good reason to come to Texas today. It was well worth the effort.”

Finally, it was time for the main event: Moler’s talk on the “Evolution of MATLAB.” The Department of Physics and Astronomy had graciously organized a reception before the talk. As was expected, Moler spoke to a packed auditorium of professors, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate and undergraduate students. He began by going back to his college days at the California Institute of Technology, when Caltech’s computer was one of only a couple dozen computers in Southern California. Moler later attended graduate school at Stanford University and studied under George Forsythe, the founder of Stanford’s computer science program, which went on to pioneer the industry. It all began with the enterprising and hardworking students who tinkered with Spacewar, the world’s first video game, to blow off steam. Moler recounted an attempt by Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to hold a Spacewar competition over the phone, which was unsuccessful because of the slow connection. During his time at Los Alamos, Moler created a film to demonstrate the efficient computation of singular value decomposition of matrices. The audience gasped in wonder at a clip showing a part of this film being used on one of the many screens of the SS Enterprise in the original 1979 Star Trek movie.

Moler originally wrote MATLAB as a side project. His numerical analysis students at Stanford in 1979 were not particularly impressed with it; however, the program somehow made its way to Jack Little, the current president and co-founder of MathWorks. “Three years later he came up to me and said he wanted to commercialize MATLAB,” Moler reminisced. Little quit his job, moved up to the hills behind Stanford, and co-founded MathWorks in 1984. Moler explained that for the first few years, MATLAB grew steadily at a rate of 2n employees for the nth year; currently it has 3,500 employees worldwide. The software’s diverse areas of application include biology in RNA sequencing, Wall Street finance calculations, medical devices like hearing aids, electronics and circuit design, control systems for things like quadcopters, and computing systems in cars like the Chevrolet Volt. Moler signed off to thunderous applause and a standing ovation from the 200-strong audience. He tirelessly posed for hundreds of photographs throughout the day, greeting everyone with a big smile and offering warm words of encouragement to the students. 

Overall, it was an unforgettable experience for the students to interact with an iconic figure in the field of mathematics and computer science; afterwards, many expressed sincere interest in getting involved with the student chapter. Undoubtedly, it was the best possible way the newly-formed Texas A&M University Chapter of SIAM could have hoped to end the academic year.

Sourav Dutta is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Mathematics at Texas A&M University. He was the president of the SIAM student chapter during the 2015-16 school year, and is currently an active member.

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