David Gelernter, B.A. & M.A. ’76

Unknown | unknown.ysm@gmail.com February 14, 2011
One could say that Professor David Gelernter is a man of three faces – a pioneer in computer science, an artist with deep cultural roots, and a writer. Indeed, Gelernter has made significant contributions to all three fields. In computer science, Gelernter has worked on parallel programming, which allows computations to be completed much faster than alternative sequential programming. From this he developed the Linda programming language, a contribution hailed as the basis of an essential component of Java. Gelernter also pioneered the use of lifestreams, the concept powering the modern “information now” phenomenon manifested in Facebook news feeds, Twitter feeds, and activity streams.
Gelernter’s visionary ideas extend to his publications; “Mirror Worlds” was among those to predict the genesis of the internet and influenced major software advances at Sun Microsystems and Google Earth. But Gelernter has also written about Judaism, society, and philosophy, and as an artist creates haunting paintings of religious and Semitic imagery. Gelernter is currently preparing his art for both a gallery opening and a museum showing.
So disparate are his interests and activities that characterizing Gelernter by his three fortes is appropriate; perhaps Gelertner himself once subconsciously relegated his interests this way. While he was regularly exposed to computers by his father, a physicist who became an innovator of artificial intelligence in the late 1950s and 1960s, throughout his youth, Gelernter bypassed computer science in favor of religion and painting. Gelernter saw computer work only as an interesting field that could be a practical day job. In fact, Gelernter calls his beginnings at computer science “a burst of youthful idealism,” an attempt to find an outlet as far as possible from art and religious thought. This, Gelernter reasoned, would allow him to work on religion and painting “uninfluenced by any market or practical considerations.”
Gelernter’s artistic inclinations were immediately roused the first time he stepped on Yale’s campus. Says Gelernter: “What first drew me to Yale, when I first saw it as a child, was Beinecke library. It’s one of the most beautiful and deepest buildings of the last hundred years; I loved it the first time I saw it, and still do.” By the time Gelernter graduated with a Masters degree in Classical Hebrew Literature, he held a lifelong appreciation of Yale’s architecture, “I’ve always been obsessed with medieval art and architecture, and the extraordinary quality of Yale’s imitation thirteenth century English buildings has always bowled me over. This is the most beautiful campus in the western hemisphere. I can’t believe how many people walk the streets without ever looking higher than eye level.”
Art was definitely a factor in Gelernter’s decision to return to Yale later in his life – this time as a computer science professor. The proximity of New York City as a center of the U.S. art world proved a major draw. It was shortly after he joined Yale once again in 1982 that Gelernter produced his acclaimed work in parallel programming.
Since then, his work has become increasingly interdisciplinary. His publications began to draw more and more from his love for the creative arts. “Machine Beauty” is about the importance of aesthetics in technology, while “The Muse in the Machine” creates a place for poetry in artificial intelligence research. A glance at the classes he teaches will tell you that Gelernter is no ordinary lecturer of algorithms. Computer Science and the Modern Agenda introduces the student both to basic computer science and to philosophy of the mind, whereas The Graphical User Interface can be counted towards a writing credit.
Thus, the Gelernter of today would correct anyone who congratulates him for settling so well into three different fields. Reflecting upon his life so far, Gelernter has realized that he is not a connoisseur of three separate things, but of just one: following his passion, united throughout many different fields. “I’m a painter, writer, and computer scientist, not because I have three heads or three minds, but because my own worldview cuts across the standard bureaucratic boundaries between fields; the same thing is true of many (perhaps most) people.” Remembering how he began computer science, Gelernter gently chides his younger, idealistic self. He stated, “I didn’t understand back then that a man has only has one mind, and that everything he does or tries to do is an expression of one guiding obsession.”