Thursday, June 30, 2011

Visiting Microsoft Research

I am visiting the Theory group at Microsoft Research in Redmond, and this week it has shifted to summer mode: a plethora of visitors at all levels of seniority, talks and research discussions in every corner of our section of the building, and plans for a group weekend hike in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area. It is a little bit like the French Riviera: quiet in the winter, overflowing with visitors in the summer. The only difference is that the visitors are not here to meet movie celebrities but to work with one another.

The research group is headed by Yuval Peres, formerly of Berkeley and the Hebrew university, and spans a diverse mix of areas: theoretical computer science, theoretical physics, probability and combinatorics, algorithmic game theory. The common theme is what gave the group its name, and collaborations developed there have spurred some of the nicest papers at the intersection of those areas.

The absence of Oded Schramm, virtual Fields medalist (meaning that everyone knew that he would have been awarded a Fields medal if he had not been over 40 years old, and that he would not have been over 40 years old if he had not been Israeli and obligated to spend a few years of his youth doing military service), still leaves a big gap. He died in a mountain accident on Labor day a couple of years ago. Now there is no one to solve people's hard problems with quite the same ease, nor to lead us to ping-pong or fussball after lunch. It's funny how quiet he was in life, yet what a big shadow he leaves.

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