Interview with Professor John Tucker MAE, Professor of Computer Science, Swansea University
By Juliet Davies, Executive Officer
As the second in our series of interviews with Members of Academia Europaea, Juliet Davies asks Professor John Tucker to share his professional highlights and what being an Member of Academia Europaea means to him.
JD: John, could you give us an overview of your most significant professional experiences?
JT: I was well educated in Bridgend Boys’ Grammar School and studied Mathematics at Warwick University, when the University was just a few years old and a very exciting place to be. At Warwick, I took pure mathematics courses and chose lots of options in computer science and philosophy. I have not seen a university education that could have better prepared me for my scientific life. Through the options, I became interested in mathematical logic and its applications and moved to Bristol University to do my PhD in mathematics, where I worked on what could and could not be computed in abstract algebras. My supervisor was John Cleave, a polymath and activist who had left computing to work theoretically on logic and computation. In the 1950s, John had worked on machine translation of natural languages with the computer pioneers Andrew and Kathleen Booth in London. Also influential at Bristol was John Shepherdson, an outstanding all-round logician who was transitioning to work on problems of computer science through friends in IBM T J Watson labs.
After my PhD, I was awarded a Royal Society European Fellowship to pursue my own research programme in the logic group of Jens Erik Fenstad MAE at the Mathematics Institute of Oslo University for two years. At Oslo, I broadened my mathematical research but found that my problems and theorising were closer to those in the then emerging field of theoretical computer science. In 1979 I came to the Computer Science Department of the CWI in Amsterdam, where I joined the group of Jaco de Bakker MAE working on the foundations of programming. I found my logical work directly relevant to emerging problems to do with modelling data and a new world of programming abstractions, a few of which I had glimpsed but did not understand at Oslo through Ole Johan Dahl.
Oslo and Amsterdam were deeply important experiences. I was free to pursue my curiosity and education supported by brilliant colleagues. I discovered how rich and enjoyable it is to belong to the continental European scientific community, and I began life-long collaborations with Jan Bergstra MAE (Amsterdam), Viggo Stoltenberg-Hansen (Uppsala), and Jeffrey Zucker (McMaster). In 1981, I returned to the UK, starting my career in Leeds University. In 1989, I returned to Wales to the Chair of Computer Science at Swansea. Swansea has been a wonderful place to work.
JD: What does being a member of Academia Europaea mean for you?
I became a member of Academia Europaea (AE) in 2011 and attended my first Annual Meeting in Bergen. I knew of the Society from continental computer scientists in the Informatics Section, and was delighted when Dines Bjorner, the Informatics chair, suggested I might become a member in a taxi in Liverpool. Clearly, the AE’s membership is truly outstanding so to take my place among such people is an honour. My peer group was somewhat exclusive: the UK’s AE community in computer science consisted of less than a dozen FRSs, and Wales had very few members at the time – Ole Petersen and Sir John Cadogan being the only locals in science. I happily recall the phone call from Hermann Maurer (Dines’ successor) one Saturday evening informing me.
I loved the idea that AE was an academy representing and celebrating the academic world of Europe. Since 1990, I had worked on the idea of founding a national academy for Wales, which involved me thinking about the local academic world and its problems in depth. In May 2010, the Learned Society of Wales (LSW) was launched. So, at the time of my election to AE I lived and breathed academies, not least as General Secretary of the LSW!
What does AE mean to me? A true honour, yes; it deepens my sense of gratitude and belonging to this quite remarkable European academic community and it encourages me to think and act accordingly.
JD: What is your involvement with AE and particularly the Cardiff Hub?
JT: Apart from enjoying and contributing to the meetings, I am looking forward to hosting an AE discussion and debate on Science for Policy: A European Perspective at Swansea University (Tuesday 4th September 2018).
JD: You are on the AE Cardiff Hub Steering Group. What do you see as the Hub’s role in the future?
JT: The AE Hubs are important as they develop special areas of expertise relevant to Europe and promote European awareness and networks in their host country and region. The UK Hub at Cardiff specialises in scientific advice and should promote the engagement of individual researchers in development of public knowledge and policy. The Hub serves the UK and Wales. The UK is a big country, with a big intellectual history and a big academic community. But it can be insular in all sorts of ways and under-estimate the originality and value of the extraordinary variety of European academic cultures. The headquarters are in London as the AE was founded here – it is one of thousands of British contributions to European unity. In the UK, the Hub needs to advocate intellectual business as usual after Brexit.
After all, in research it is the contributions and collaborations of individuals that matters.