At 80, Engineering Professor Joseph Traub Celebrated for Building Computer Science Department

Beth Kwon
November 19, 2012

When Joseph Traub joined Columbia’s Engineering School in 1979, it had a single computer, only three tenured faculty members teaching computer science and huge demand for the classes—but no computer science department. “I like building things from scratch,” says Traub, the Edwin Armstrong Professor of Computer Science, who was tasked by then dean Peter Likins with creating a department out of virtually nothing.

Today, there are more than 3,000 students enrolled in computer science courses at the Engineering School, and its 39 professors comprise the school’s largest department. Its award-winning faculty from around the world includes six members of the National Academy of Engineering, nine Sloan Foundation fellows and 26 winners of National Science Foundation Career (Young Investigator) awards.

Traub, who turned 80 earlier this year, still teaches and has his office in the Computer Science Building, built under his watch in 1982. His birthday was commemorated by a symposium at Davis Auditorium Nov. 9, celebrating his research and contributions to computer science. Among those attending was Henryk Wozniakowski, a longtime collaborator and Columbia professor. “Joe was and is still very hungry researchwise,” Wozniakowski says. “He always wants to study new problems. And he is still very young in spirit.”

When he arrived at Columbia, recruiting was crucial. “There were huge numbers of students taking courses because the only way you could get your hands on a computer—this was 1980—was through computer science,” Traub recalls. “But we had almost no faculty.”

He snapped up bright young Ph.D.s and secured a $600,000 gift from IBM, which later donated another $4 million. He also negotiated a research contract with DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), an agreement that included access to ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet. Within a year the department was awarding bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as Ph.Ds.

A 1950 graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, Traub feels his greatest achievement there was being the best chess player and team captain. After earning degrees in math and physics at City College of New York, Traub came to Columbia for graduate work in 1954 and got hooked on computing.

When it came time to decide on a thesis topic, Traub asked his adviser, “Will Columbia give me a degree for computer chess?” The answer was no, so at the suggestion of physics professor Henry Foley, he worked on computational quantum mechanics. He spent hundreds of hours on the IBM 650, one of the company’s first computers, which resembled a large vending machine, used punch cards and had a memory capacity of the equivalent of 8.5 kilobytes.

More than 40 years later, Traub attended the chess match between IBM’s chess-playing computer, Deep Blue, and Garry Kasparov. “I was one of the few audience members rooting for Deep Blue,” Traub says. “After all, that was also a human achievement. Humans invented the strategies and built the hardware and software.”

In 1959, the same year he received his Ph.D. from Columbia, he joined the research division of Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. There he did research on optimal algorithms, methods that use minimal computational resources to solve a problem. This led him to the field of information-based complexity, which studies optimal algorithms for continuous scientific problems that come up in physical science, biology and finance. While on sabbatical at Stanford in 1966, Traub collaborated with a student named Michael Jenkins to create a fast, reliable way to solve polynomial equations—the Jenkins-Traub algorithm—which is still widely used.

In 1971, at age 38, he was appointed head of Carnegie Mellon University’s then small computer science department, expanding it into one of the strongest in the country before joining Columbia eight years later. In 1985 he became the founding editor-in-chief of the "Journal of Complexity" and in 1986 founded the Computer Science and Technology Board (CSTB) of the National Research Council.

His bookshelf is filled with his papers and books, including 10 written by his wife, Pamela McCorduck, who taught science writing at Columbia.

Born in 1932 in Germany, Traub showed an early knack for numbers, teaching himself to tell time and use percentages by the time he was 4 or 5.

He recalls that one morning he went to his parent’s bedroom and noticed his father wasn’t there. He asked why the alarm was set for 3 a.m. “My mother got very agitated because he had left early to take the train across the border to Switzerland,” Traub says. “He was smuggling valuable items, already hoping that it could be turned into money when he felt it was time to emigrate.”

Within a few years the family would be forced to flee Nazi Germany, settling in New York City in 1939. “I was lucky to come to the United States when I was 6 years old,” says Traub. “This country has been very good to me.”