Salomaa: Rules are made by people and can be changed

Graduates must remember there are more things left to learn and that often “searching is better than finding,” said Arto Salomaa, one of the world’s most influential computer scientists.

Salomaa, a central figure in formal language and automata theory, a core area of  theoretical computer science, spoke to graduates from the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies at the Thursday, June 13 afternoon session of Western’s 301st Convocation.

Western conferred an honorary Doctor of Science, honoris causa (D.Sc.), upon Salomaa in recognition his outstanding career in and contribution to computer science.

“The world is changing, perhaps today more rapidly than ever before,” Salomaa said. “You must be ready to face new developments and new environments with an open mind.”

Salomaa’s impressive and influential career in computer science spans more than four decades and has had a significant impact in modern society, from guaranteeing the functioning of car braking systems to ensuring credit card transactions are properly handled.

One of the world’s most prominent computer scientists, Salomaa’s research is regarded as the basis on which modern computer theory has been built.

Four decades later, his book, Formal Languages, is still one of the 100 most cited texts in mathematics; it has been declared a classic by the Association for Computing Machinery.

Western’s Department of Computer Science, a Canadian first, owes a great deal to Salomaa. He was instrumental in its foundation in the early 1960s, when he visited the campus, and the university still shows his influence to this day with a number of his PhD students previously and currently holding faculty positions.

The strength Western has shown in theoretical computer science is likewise a credit to Salomaa, showcased in the 50 Years of Automata Theory conference, attracting prominent figures in the field.

Salomaa teaches mathematics and computer science at the Turku Center for Computer Science, University of Turku, Finland. He has written and co-authored dozens of textbooks and published hundreds of articles in scientific journals. He holds numerous awards and titles as well as seven honorary degrees.

Salomaa encouraged those wishing to pursue a career of research, whether in industry or academia.

“Research must face many obstacles; finding money is not the least of them. You must face awkward bureaucratic rules, but remember rules are made by people and can be changed,” he said.

“If you love what you are doing, you will find much joy in your work, even if you don’t reach the results you wanted to reach. Sometimes searching is better than finding.”

In his citation, Stephen Watt, professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Western, said Salomaa’s influence on research, modern society and Western has been vast.

“In his work, Professor Salomaa is known for being prolific, deep and broad. Since 1959, he has had more than 500 publications, including 50 books.  While this is exceptional by any standard, it is very unusual in theoretical computer science. In terms of area, Professor Salomaa has made major contributions to the theory of formal languages and automata, grammars and rewriting systems, combinatorics on words, cryptography, authentication and secret sharing, models of computation, algorithmic information theory, many-valued logic, Boolean functions and DNA computing,” Watt said.

“Where Professor Salomaa has perhaps had the greatest influence is through his choice of areas of research and problems. His way of thinking and intuition of which areas will be important and which will bear fruit are most prized by his colleagues. Where Arto Salomaa leads, others will follow and many will invest their scientific careers.”

Salomaa added graduates must forge their own path and see it to success.

“You have to find your own way. On any road you are on, (you are) in some sense, a prisoner of the road. But many great researchers consistently have been able to find new roads. Life is short, but it gives also, wonderful experiences.”