Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Tribute to Godfried from Erik Demaine

A father of the field and a father figure to many of us.  I wasn't a student of Godfried's, but while I was a student at Waterloo, Godfried invited me to visit him several times at McGill, both the Montreal and Barbados campuses.  Over the years, Godfried showed me (and everyone) a deep warmth and caring.  He also taught me a lot, from geometry and mathematics to history to music/rhythm theory.

But the biggest lesson I learned from Godfried was the importance of collaboration.  Working on math problems in group brainstorming is both way more productive and way more fun, making research into a social experience.  This lesson completely transformed and continued to shape my career (and hopefully also my own students).  Now almost all of my research happens in the group brainstorming environment that Godfried exemplified.

The epitome of this collaborative spirit was Godfried's famous Winter Workshop on Computational Geometry, which reached its 34th year this year.  I attended this workshop every year since I was 18 years old, and in recent years had the priviledge of co-organizing the workshop with Godfried.  It was great to see him one last time at the workshop this year, 20 years after my first Winter Workshop.

Some of Godfried's early papers in computational geometry were counterexample papers, revealing critical bugs in previously published papers that he'd read carefully.  He once told me that his goal was to uncover mathematical truth, so he was surprised when he found that his counterexample papers upset the authors whose algorithms he was disproving.  Once he discovered this fact, he vowed to never write another counterexample paper, instead writing to the authors directly and finding a more polite way to set the record straight.  So I was excited when I and my students found a bug in one paper of Godfried's, and Godfried made an exception: together we wrote Godfried's final counterexample paper, featuring a counterexample to his own paper.

I'll miss you, Godfried.

Me with two dads, at CCCG 2004.