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Leonid Levin Wins Humboldt Research Award

German foundation honors computer scientist


The Humboldt Research Award came as a surprise to Leonid Levin, a professor in the CAS computer science department, who sometimes wishes his research was less arcane.

Inrecognition of an extraordinary mathematical mind and a career filled withnoteworthy theoretical advances in computer science, probability, andinformation theories, the Bonn-based Alexander von Humboldt Foundation has given one of its annual research awards to Leonid Levin, a College of Arts& Sciences professor of computer science.

Theaward came as a surprise to Levin, who was nominated by Wolfgang Merkle, aprofessor at the University of Heidelberg. “They keep secrets; they do notdisclose nominations or reviews leading to their decisions,” says the honored butbemused Levin, who was selected for his “entire achievements to date,”according to the Humboldt Foundation, named for the German naturalist andexplorer who died in 1859.

Oneof 100 recipients worldwide for 2010, Levin will receive about $70,000, in honorof his discoveries, theories, and insights, which have made a significantimpact in his often rarified field. He will also be invited to work with Germancolleagues on a long-term project.

Levin’sBU homepage has links to his papers and lectureson holographic proofs, aperiodic tilings, and randomness and nondeterminism, aswell as a verse from the 19th-century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin next to animage of a flickering flame: “To God obedient, O Muse, / Demand no wreath, fearno abuse. / Remain to praise and slander cool, / And do not argue with a fool.”At the bottom is a quote from Winston Churchill: “The best lesson life hastaught me is that the idiots in many cases are right.”

Beyondthese flourishes, and a reference to a $1 million reward for solving one of six(of the original seven) Clay Mathematics Institute Millennium Math Problems,there is little in Levin’s research profile that is likely to be understood bya layperson. Levin, who attended a physics and math boarding school in hisnative Moscow, at age 18 was working in an area of mathematics known as the Kolmogorov-Solomonoffcomplexity.

“I wish my research was less arcane,” says Levin, who has a thick Russian accent and a mischievous laugh.

Buttheorists such as him are “on the dark side of the Force,” he says. “We haveour day when something people expected to become reality any day turns out, bywatertight proof we find, to be absolutely impossible, ever. You can guess thatwe cannot be very popular!”

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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