On a sunny day in Heidelberg, Germany’s Science City, I had a friendly chit chat with Vint Cerf, gentleman scholar, mathematician, computer scientist, and vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google. Oh, and he’s also the guy who Invented. The. Internet (yes, that internet). But now he’s looking to invent another internet, one that is interplanetary in nature. For your imagination, courage, and fortitude, I salute you, Senor Cerf.
I first met Vint at the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting in 2016, where he was serving as an HLF ambassador – he gave the Heidelberg Leture that year at the Physics Meeting. I stayed in touch and had the chance to speak with him later in 2016 about his interplanetary internet proposal.
Today, while we sat in the courtyard of Heidelberg University and enjoyed the crisp autumn weather, I thought of all the young computer scientists and mathematicians who are attending the HLF, and who will probably be indispensable in the design, development, and deployment of the aforementioned internet of the cosmos. So I decided to ask Vint about his advice for early career scholars, dreamers, and doers about how they can forge forward, build an intellectually satisfying career, and make a difference in our corner of the Milky Way and beyond. Here’s what this extremely friendly, down-to-earth scientist told me:
Q: Why are you successful as a scientist?
A: This presumes, of course, that I am successful as a scientist. Let us presume this. There are several answers. Luck is part of it. The opportunity to work on an interesting problem at the right time, in the right place, with right people is often central to success. Second, I think I work best when I am working with other people, and in particular with Bob Kahn, on the internet project anyway. Having different perspectives makes it easier to disarticulate a problem and understand what makes it tick, and that helps you figure out what a solution is. If there is a third component, it’s an innate curiosity of how things work and why, and also a fundamental optimistic view that if there is a solution, that you can find it.
Q: Is this how you approach everything in the world? Because I could imagine that this would be helpful to you in any scenario.
A: If there is a solution. Remember there are some things which are not solvable. Mr. Gödel taught us that. In any system of logic, there are expressions you can encounter that which can not be proven one way or the other. I don’t necessarily believe that if there is a solution, I will find it. I might never find it, maybe someone else will. But I have a lot of faith in human creativity and imagination, and you need both to find solutions especially to hard problems. If I believe that something is not unsolvable, then it is not unreasonable to look for a solution. So I will confess to characteristics- one is patience, and the other is persistence, and I believe implicitly that those two contribute to success. And this is the antithesis in some business settings of some people who say impatience is the key to success. You hear business people saying “time to market is everything. We have to get the product out the door before everybody else. First to deliver is the key to success”. And I found when you are working on really hard problems, that patience and persistence are your friends.
Q: For scientists and engineers who do want to work for companies, how do they balance that?
A: There is a tension there. I keep insisting that some of the problems we face are rally long term problems and deserve a long term response. I am not afraid to propose short term reactions as long as everybody understands they are stop gap. I also understand that the better is the enemy of the good. In some ways, internet could be argued as an example of that. Its not perfect. There are things we should and could do better. But in the meantime, it has turned out to be a pretty powerful tool despite some of its deficiencies. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to make it better anyway.
Q: What are some of the soft skills that mathematicians, computer scientists, and other STEM professionals could do better at sharpening?
A: I teach my engineers that if you want to do anything big, you have to learn how to sell. A lot of these engineers disparage the sales activity as being some sort of “Rah Rah”, not very interesting thing, and I remind them that if the sales people don’t succeed, then you don’t get paid. So you better make products that people want. I had a deal with the sales team at MCI where I used to work as Senior VP for Engineering, and my deal was very simple: I won’t make products you can’t sell, as long as you don’t sell products that I can’t make.
Q: And what did they say to that?
A: It worked out pretty well.
Q: Do you remember when you truly realized you were in love with what you were doing, that this was your true calling?
A: Very early on in my childhood, I realized this is what I wanted. I would guess around age 10, I got a chemistry set, and this was in 1953, when you got some really great chemicals in chemistry sets. We made explosives and all kinds of other interesting things. And I started reading a lot of scientific literature at that point. I read books such as Microbe Hunters, 123 Infinity, and The Boy Scientist. These were all books that opened up a vista of scientific research that was basically infinite. And at that point, I was pretty good at mathematics too. I was in fifth grade when I complained about how boring the arithmetic was, and my teacher gave me a seventh grade algebra book, and I spent the entire summer solving all of the problems in the book. And I loved them, especially the word problems because they were like Agatha Christie novels where you had to figure out what was X. So for me, around age 10, I was completely convinced I was going to be a nuclear physicist or a particle physicist. But physics and I never really got a long well it turned out and I eventually wound up in mathematics. I majored in Math at Stanford, but fell in love with computers and I even remember why. It was because if you could write a program then you were the master of your own little universe. And it did what it told you to do. Including bugs. That’s when it did what you didn’t know you told it to do.
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2, where you learn what language Cerf first programmed in, how he got access to the computers at UCLA as a high school student, why he and physics broke up (they’re still friends), and how he defines success.
Alaina G. Levine is a science writer, science careers consultant, professional speaker and corporate comedian. She is the author of Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015), which was named a top 5 Book of 2015 by Physics Today. Contact her via her website or follow on twitter @AlainaGLevine.