Sporting a dangling earring and a passion for foreign cultures, Daniel A. Spielman ’92 may not seem like a stereotypical computer science professor. But it was this same originality that was at the root of his appointment to a professorship in the Computer Science Department in July.
Spielman, who most recently served as a professor of applied mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he also received his Ph.D. in mathematics, is predicted to strengthen the Yale’s applied mathematics program while serving as an “interdisciplinary” professor, Program in Applied Mathematics director Steven Zucker said. Spielman, who draws on his expertise in many different fields — including math, computer science and physics — will be capable of teaching courses that fulfill the new quantitative reasoning requirement of this year’s curriculum changes.
“We’re very interested in faculty who can teach courses that fill the new quantitative reasoning requirement and these usually mean courses that likely use math but apply it in an interesting way,” Yale College Dean Peter Salovey said. “Not only does this characterize Professor Spielman’s interests, but he was an acclaimed teacher at MIT.”
Spielman is known for his significant contributions to the telecommunications industry among other industries — he discovered a class of mathematical techniques for coding data — and has also discovered a new way of analysis for operations research problems, Zucker said.
Physics Department chairman Ramamurti Shankar, who headed the quantitative reasoning task force last year, said that Spielman will bring “excitement” to courses in the QR sequence. Zucker said the new professor will influence students ranging from non-mathematics majors to upper-level computer scientists.
“We were looking for someone concrete enough to inspire undergraduates, who are not yet highly trained in mathematics, to appreciate how important and beautiful these ideas in applied mathematics really are,” Zucker said. “He is one of the few people with major achievements in very abstract mathematics who is able to explain them in an exciting and inspiring way to non-mathematicians. He is very unlike the caricature of mathematicians that you see on television.”
Spielman’s first major achievement came in 11th grade when he patented a device for determining if a tennis ball should be called fair or foul, but his desire to become a scientist began much earlier.
“I didn’t know this, but apparently when we were making time capsules at my grade school, I wrote ‘I am five. I will be a scientist. I will work in a scientist lab,'” Spielman said. “Since I went to this very strange grade school called the Philadelphia School where they didn’t have tests or grades, I spent a lot of time learning a whole lot of math.”
The rest was history as Spielman soon begged his parents for a Commodore Pet computer, which he began to spend “all” his time with throughout grade school. Next came the Apple computer. And then, when Spielman graduated from high school, he enrolled at Yale.
“I chose Yale, because I thought I would go into the sciences and I wanted to go somewhere where the humanities students knew more than me, where I would learn a lot more than science for a few years,” Spielman said. “Since it was a fairly small program, I thought that I would get a lot of attention from the faculty while I was here. And I did.”
Spielman, who graduated summa cum laude with exceptional distinction in computer science and also revived the Yale Kung Fu Club, conducted research in his sophomore year with Richard Beigel, a computer science professor. Spielman said he enjoys the excitement and intensity of research and problem solving.
But Spielman plans to place an emphasis on teaching while at Yale as well.
“Teaching is important to him, and he makes sure everyone understands what he’s trying to teach him,” said Jonathan Kelner, an MIT graduate student currently conducting research with Spielman. “He really finds the right problems to work on and teaches you the right way to solve them. He’s a great guy.”
Spielman lives in Connecticut with his wife Donna Marland-Spielman, his daughter Julia, 4, and his son Noah, 2.