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Listen or download interview (mp3, 23 minutes, 22MB)
John Hopcroft became one of the world's first theoretical computer scientists by accident. An electrical engineer by training, he stumbled into the field when, as a young professor, he was asked to teach a course on then-emerging computer theory. The newness of the field hooked him, and Hopcroft went on to write one of its first textbooks and to develop revolutionary methods for analyzing computer programs and their languages. He's now at work tracking the evolution of social networks and building the search engines of the future.
Hopcroft is the IBM Professor of Engineering and Applied Mathematics in Computer Science at Cornell University. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2009.
Hopcroft describes growing up in a poor but loving family in 1940s Seattle. His father, an English immigrant and janitor, encourages his son's interests in math, science and all things mechanical, and Hopcroft goes on to study electrical engineering in a nearby college. After switching over to computer science in the midst of his first teaching job, he joins forces with a former student to develop one of the first theoretical computer science textbooks. Hopcroft explains some of his theoretical contributions to the field, including his work on computer language "grammar" and on algorithms that can measure the efficiency of computer programs, and his current efforts to study search engines and the evolution of online communities. Hopcroft concludes with some thoughts on his students' success and on the importance of giving young people-even one’s own children-freedom to take risks.
Last Updated: 8-16-2011
The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.