SIAM News Blog

Prize Spotlight: John Hopcroft

John Hopcroft of Cornell University was awarded the 2018 SIAM Prize for Distinguished Service to the Profession at the SIAM Annual Meeting held July 9-13, 2018 in Portland, Oregon.

John Hopcroft

SIAM awards its Prize for Distinguished Service to the Profession every year to an applied mathematician who has made distinguished contributions to the advancement of applied mathematics on the national or international level. SIAM recognized Professor Hopcroft for his outstanding contributions to furthering applied mathematics and computer science, both nationally and internationally.

John Hopcroft is the IBM Professor of Engineering and Applied Mathematics in Computer Science at Cornell University. He received his BS (1961) from Seattle University and his MS (1962) and PhD (1964) in electrical engineering from Stanford University. He served as Dean of Cornell University’s College of Engineering from 1994 until 2001. His research centers on theoretical aspects of computer science.

Hopcroft is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Association of Computing Machinery, and SIAM. In 1992, he was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation, and served through May 1998.

In 2016, Hopcroft was awarded China’s Friendship Medal, China’s highest recognition for a foreigner. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has designated him as an Einstein Professor. He has honorary degrees from Seattle University, the National College of Ireland, the University of Sydney, St. Petersburg State University, Beijing University of Technology, and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He is an honorary professor of the Beijing Institute of Technology, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Chongqing University, Yunnan University, and Peking University. He serves on Microsoft’s Technical Advisory Board for Research Asia, and the advisory boards of IIIT Delhi and Seattle University’s College of Engineering. In 2017 he was elected a foreign member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Q: Why are you excited about winning the SIAM Prize for Distinguished Service to the Profession?

A: The SIAM prize is the icing on the cake of a lifetime of following my curiosity and having fun with puzzling problems. I would like to thank SIAM and the selection committee for this honor. One of the rewards as a teacher happens when someone walks into your office and says, “You probably don’t remember me but I took a course from you thirty years ago and it changed my life.” As you get older, it is not how much money you have earned or how many papers you have written that gives you satisfaction but rather the realization that you have had a positive impact on someone else. That is why this award is so fulfilling for me.

Q: Could you tell us a bit about the research that won you the prize?

A: I started my career when the field of computer science was just forming and there were no departments, courses, or books on the subject. My early work in theory led to organizing what was known and publishing a book, Formal Languages and their Relation to Automata, which had a major impact on how theory was taught around the world as departments were created. Computer science theory was primarily finite automata, context free languages, computational complexity, and computability. In 1970 I realized that theory needed to expand and so developed the new area of algorithms, which consisted of measuring the performance of an algorithm by its asymptotic complexity. Along with others, I developed techniques for designing asymptotically optimal algorithms and this had a worldwide impact on this new field that was expanding before us.

Q: What does your research and activity mean to the public?

A: My research led to advances in the development of computer science, a field that would produce “The Information Age” that now touches the daily life of every person. My teaching led to educated professionals who pursue their interests in companies and classrooms. In China, where talent is universal but opportunity is not, I have begun to work on changing the culture of higher education so that deserving students can get a shot at a better life.

Q: What does being a SIAM member mean to you?

A: I have been a member of SIAM since the 1970s and have participated in journals and conferences for many years. Today conferences and journals are taken for granted but when I was young there were few outlets for publishing in the new field of computer science. I am grateful to have been able to work with SIAM co-founder Ed Block to produce the SIAM Journal on Computing.

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