Brown CS Blog

A Letter To The Class Of 2022

    Dear Class of 2022,

    Congratulations! We are very proud of your achievements!

    The theme of this letter is inspired by an artistic work created by one of our Computer Science graduates of the Class of 2020.

    Resuming in-person classes in Fall 2021 was an emotional moment, and I felt we needed something special to commemorate it. So I began my first in-person CS 1810 class (“Computational Molecular Biology”) by showing “Cathedral of Computational Biology,” an oil-on-canvas painting by Xinyue (Avrilla) Qian, a double major in History of Art and Architecture, and Computer Science. 

    CS1810 and CS 1820 (“Algorithmic Foundations of Computational Biology”) – two undergraduate courses I teach – are devoted to Beautiful Algorithms.  I define a “beautiful” algorithm as one satisfying four criteria: (1) Rigorous, (2) Practical, (3) Elegant Code, and (4) Esthetic (satisfying von Neumann esthetic principle). 


    Xinyue (Avrilla) Qian, painter and computer scientist

    Avrilla, who took my Fall 2019 CS 1810 course, was one of the top students in the class. 

    At the end of Chapter 1, “Sequence Alignment Algorithms,” I tried to summarize three weeks of lectures, their assumptions, and their approximations by giving an impressionistic review of the algorithmic and mathematical methods presented in my lectures. 

    The pairwise sequence alignment problems were solved exactly, through a tour de force with practical optimal time algorithms that compute the globally optimal solution. It was a true model solution for computational biology problems intertwining discrete and continuous mathematics – a quintessential characteristic of computational biology algorithms. Graph theory, dynamic programming, random walks, probability distributions, phase transitions, linear models, Margaret Dayhoff and Michael Waterman, and Sir Ronald Fisher’s Lady Tasting Tea p-value defining story – all these components worked in concert to provide the solution for computing the optimal alignment of two DNA or RNA, or protein sequences. I sketched this “Cathedral of Sequence Alignment” – with its three pillars of Computer Science, Biology, and Statistics – on our floor-to-ceiling class whiteboard.

    A few months later, Avrilla presented her painting to me. She called her cathedral – a design based on Vincent van Gogh’s “The Church at Auvers” – “a celebration of algorithmic foundations of sequence alignment in computational biology.” It was brilliant, harmonizing and embedding the algorithmic components within the architectural components in inspiring ways. Vincent had left open a window for the Lady tasting tea. Thanks to Avrilla’s beautiful painting, my course on Beautiful Algorithms acquired true artistic beauty. 

    In these times of pandemic stress and ugliness, focusing on beautiful art, beautiful algorithms and beautiful mathematics is the antidote. 


    Qian, Avrilla. Cathedral of Computational Biology. 2019, oil-on-canvas.

    When I arrived at Brown in 2005, the Department of Computer Science asked me to write an essay about my computational biology journey. “Randomness is Beautiful: in Search of von Neumann” was the result. Over the years, I have written additional essays in order to share lessons I have been privileged to learn from scientists who inspired me: John von Neumann, Edsger Dijkstra, and Eric Davidson. I wanted to share those lessons with my students, for they have had a role in shaping my focus on beauty.

    The Association of Computing Machinery’s 1972 citation for Dijkstra’s Turing Award reads: “The working vocabulary of programmers everywhere is studded with words originally or forcefully promulgated by E.W. Dijkstra... but his influence on programming is more pervasive than any glossary can possibly indicate. The precious gift that this Turing Award acknowledges is Dijkstra’s style, his approach to programming as a high, intellectual challenge... and his illuminating perception of problems at the foundations of program design... his memorable indictment of the go-to statement... We have come to value good programs in much the same way as we value good literature. And at the center of this movement, creating and reflecting patterns no less beautiful than useful, stands E.W. Dijkstra.” 

    Dijkstra’s Axiom: Beauty is our business. Mathematical beauty is more important for computer science than for mathematics. Mathematical beauty could and should be taught. [2,3]

    Von Neuman’s Axiom: Be an intra-math, inter-sciences, and cross-cultures scientist [1]

    Davidson’s Axiom: “Have inexhaustible optimism, inexhaustible curiosity, inexhaustible energy and inexhaustible honesty!” [4]

    Your time here at Brown has been one of rigor and challenge – not just academically, but also due to extraordinary circumstances posed by a pandemic. Now that you are graduating and undertaking the next chapters of your lives, it will be no different. You will continue to face challenges and extraordinary circumstances – different ones. But I know that I speak for every CS faculty member when I urge you to always – always – seek out the beauty in all that you do.


    Best of everything!

       V:\akm_sorin\Sorin CV et al\eSignature\Sorin sig.tiff

    Sorin Istrail
    Julie Nguyen Brown Professor of Computational and Mathematical Sciences, and
    Professor of Computer Science

    [1] S. Istrail and T. Sweeny, “Randomness is Beautiful: In Search of von Neumann,” Conduit Magazine (2006)
    [2] S. Istrail “Criticizing Professor Dijkstra Considered Harmless,” Conduit Magazine (2008) 
    [3] S. Istrail, “When Professor Dijkstra Slapped Me in the Quest for Beautiful Code,” Conduit Magazine (2010) 
    [4] S. Istrail, “Eric Davidson: Master of the Universe,” Developmental Biology, 412, 547-554 (2016)