Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Ken Kennedy’s H index vs Google ranking

Posted by metaphorical on 9 February 2007

I don’t want to make too much of this, but I was struck yesterday by the fact that two people came into my office to tell me that Anna Nicole Smith died. I barely knew who she was—the woman who married the rich old guy practically on his deathbed?

I also barely knew who Ken Kennedy was, but when the first person stopped in my doorway to tell me about Smith, I was reading an obit about him sent to a mailing list I’m on. Kennedy died at 61 of cancer on Wednesday. He was a University Professor at Rice University, having founded the school’s highly-regarded computer science program.

As a leading expert on high-performance computing, he wrote over 200 technical papers, earning him an “h index” for Computer Science of 54, putting him at a tie for 16th place. The h index is “a useful index to characterize the scientific output of a researcher.” In other words, it’s one way to try to see who the most productive computer science researchers are. By comparison, Donald Knuth, the algorithm guru, and Dave Patterson, the current president of the ACM, are in a group tied at 76th. Kennedy also wrote a book on compilers and supervised 38 Ph.D. dissertations.

I could write an entire page, a pretty boring one, listing all of Kennedy’s achievements and honors; here are just the highest of the highlights. He became a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1990, a Fellow of the AAAS in 1994 and of the ACM and IEEE in 1995. His IEEE fellow award cited his “leadership in the field of parallel computing.” He also received the IEEE Computer Society’s 1995 W. W. McDowell Award, its highest research award.

Maybe the most impressive achievement is the 38 dissertations. He must have been quite an advisor, because Ph.D. students put a lot of thought into choosing one. You need help focusing your topic and staying on it for the two or five years it takes to finish. You want a nice guy who’s fun to meet with, but mainly one who drives you hard enough to keep you going, but not so hard hard you’re shut down. Grad students talk to one another, and after a few years, an advisor’s track record is an open book. Kennedy seems to have been one of the great ones: 38 is better than one per year, year in and year out, over three decades.

Kennedy started at the school he spent most of his life at, getting a B.A. in math from Rice in 1967. He got his master’s from NYU and then one of that school’s first doctorates in computer science in 1971. He had headed a bunch of parallel-computing projects, including the Center for High Performance Software Research (HiPerSoft), which is actually a kind of meta-project of multi-institutional research projects.

Grid computing does for a network what multiple processors does inside a single computer. It’s obviously a big part of the way we’re going to make computers more powerful and productive in the next decades. I’m sure Anna Nicole Smith has contributed to society in her own way, and by accounts she was a pretty sweet person, but there seems to be something a bit unfair and warped in the fact that this morning there was only a single, lonely Google News hit for Kennedy and 3,386 for Smith.

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