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Parisi’s Research Garners Microsoft European Science Award
By Rob Knies
October 29, 2007 11:00 PM PT

Giorgio Parisi, professor of Quantum Theories at the University of Rome “La Sapienza,” is well renowned for his research into complex systems. For more than 30 years, he has worked with large-scale computer simulations to provide quantitative predictions impossible to calculate by hand.

But for Parisi, the value of his latest of his many honors—the 2007 Royal Society and Académie des sciences Microsoft European Science Award—is simple: It enables him to extend his research.

Giorgio Parisi
Giorgio Parisi

Parisi plans to use the €250,000 cash award that accompanies the accolade to construct a next-generation, field-programmable gate array-based machine, called IANUS, that will be able to simulate physical systems, such as spin glasses, for a much longer time than is possible by actual computers.

“It will significantly improve the range of complex systems that can be studied, both in the size and the time we can observe them,” said Parisi, who has worked in a broad range of research within theoretical physics, including elementary particle physics, quantum field theory, mathematical physics, and statistical mechanics.

“One would be able to eliminate the artifacts due to small system size. This will be crucial in order to make predictions for real systems, because, in this case, the number of components is very large, and the observation time is much longer than microscopic time.”

The Royal Society and Académie des sciences Microsoft European Science Award was established to reward scientists working in Europe who have made a significant contribution to the advancement of science through computational methods.

The prize recognizes the importance of interdisciplinary research for advancing scientific boundaries, as well as the importance of investing in European scientists to give Europe a competitive scientific base.

The award, which alternates annually between the biological and physical sciences (including mathematics and engineering), is one of the most significant international science prizes extant—and the largest in the field of computer science. It was presented in Paris on Oct. 16 at the Institut de France by Jules Hoffmann, president of the Académie des sciences; Martin Taylor, vice president of the Royal Society; and Jean-Philippe Courtois, president of Microsoft International.

Jean-Philippe Courtois, Giorgio Parisi, Martin Taylor, and Jules Hoffmann
Giorgio Parisi (second from left) accepts the Royal Society and Académie des sciences Microsoft European Science Award in Paris on Oct. 16 while accompanied by (from left) Jean-Philippe Courtois, president of Microsoft International; Martin Taylor, vice president of the Royal Society; and Jules Hoffmann, president of the Académie des sciences.

“We believe that computing has the power to push the boundaries of science,” Courtois said, “and computing can also learn a lot from science in return. Exploring computational science expands our own thinking about the role that software plays in all aspects of life, from computers in the home to scientific research such as the great work undertaken by this year’s recipient of this award, Professor Giorgio Parisi.”

Parisi’s groundbreaking work on the theory of spin glasses has had an important impact in theoretical computing, particularly formal neural networks and optimization. This award recognizes his work on quantum chromodynamics and spin glasses, his approach of using computers to corroborate the conclusions of analytical proofs and to motivate further research having been of fundamental importance in his field.

He is also the author or co-author of three books: Statistical Field Theory, Spin Glass Theory and Beyond, and Field Theory, Disorder and Simulations.

As a fellow of the Accademia dei Lincei, the Académie des sciences, the Accademia dei XL, and the National Academy of Sciences, Parisi becomes the second winner of the Microsoft European Science Award. Dennis Bray, emeritus professor in the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, won the inaugural honor in November 2006, for his research using innovative computer simulations of biological systems.

Winners of the award receive a trophy and €7,500 in prize money, with the remainder of the €250,000, funded solely by Microsoft, earmarked for research by the recipient at a publicly funded and/or nonprofit research institution in Europe.

The selection committee consisted of representatives of the Royal Society and the Académie des sciences, two of the world’s oldest, most prestigious scientific institutions. Members of this year’s selection committee included:

  • Taylor, a professor of pure mathematics at the University of Manchester.
  • Édouard Brézin, director of the theoretical physics laboratory of the École normale supérieure in Paris and a member and former president of the Académie des sciences.
  • Luca Cardelli, Microsoft Research Cambridge principal researcher and a fellow of the Royal Society.
  • Olivier Faugeras, research director at INRIA and member of the Académie des sciences.
  • Daniel Kaplan, founder and director of Fastlite and member of the Académie des sciences.
  • Denis Weaire, an Irish physicist based at Trinity College in Dublin and a fellow of the Royal Society.

The Royal Society, founded in 1660, is a fellowship of 1,400 outstanding individuals from all areas of science, engineering, and medicine that, as a whole, forms a global scientific network of the highest caliber.

The Académie des sciences, established in 1666, is an independent body that is one of the five academies of the Institut de France and that uses a multidisciplinary approach, interaction with other areas of learning, and international relations to encourage scientific activity and to foment the spirit of research.

The award partnership with the Royal Society and the Académie des sciences is part of the Microsoft European Science Initiative, a multiyear program announced in February 2005 by Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman, and managed by Microsoft Research Cambridge for collaborative research at the intersection of computing and the sciences.

The initiative represents work between Microsoft and key research bodies across Europe to create, lead, and accelerate fundamental innovation is science and computing through the pursuit of novel avenues or research, driving scientific discoveries into outcomes with economic and social value. New forms of public-private partnerships fostered through the initiative join Microsoft with universities, industry, and governments to focus on new computing paradigms, computational science, and intelligent environments.

“The power of software is, on a practical level, helping us expand the frontiers of knowledge,” Courtois said. “Through this award and other Microsoft European Science Initiative programs, we hope to accelerate advances in science and computing, and encourage and support the scientists of today and tomorrow.”

As part of the Microsoft European Science Award ceremony, a panel discussion was conducted among a collection of experts, including Parisi. The discussion, chaired by Brézin, asked the question “Computing—Science or Tool?” Other panelists included Taylor; Faugeras; Stephen Emmott, director of the Microsoft European Science Initiative; and Georges Gonthier, researcher at the Microsoft Research INRIA Joint Centre.

“Is information technology an essential and sophisticated tool for a multitude of complex problems,” Brézin asked rhetorically in a summary of the discussion, “or is it a real scientific element, like differential or integral calculations?”