Remembering Rajeev Motwani

  • June 7, 2009
  • Scott

Unfortunately Dr. Rajeev Motwani, a great professor at Stanford University, is no longer with us.  I first learned of the news on VentureBeat and GigaOm.  This is sad and shocking news, because my memory of him from CS154 (automata and such) about 16 years ago was of a vibrant professor in his prime, physically and mentally, and you just can’t imagine something will happen to someone like this.  From the comments on GigaOm, he was much the same to his students who saw him just this past Tuesday.

I was never on a first-name basis with Dr. Motwani, and I was far from the star student in our class.  In fact, some of the graduate students who were TA’s in my other Computer Science classes were taking this class alongside me, as well as one of the lecturers at the time who was lecturing, working, and pursuing her PhD or Master’s degree simultaneously.  I remember taking this class with a friend from my hometown in Missouri, and we struggled mightily to keep up, but thanks to the help of Mike Oswald (Oz) studying for the class, I got through it. This was the class where I discovered that intuitively understanding the theories and being able to write good proofs are simply two different things!

One of my favorite turns of phrase of Dr. Motwani occurred nearly every lecture.  He would start a proof on the board of the next concept we needed to understand (something about  Turing Completeness, for example).  At a certain point, feeling that he had explained the critical part of the proof, he would wave his marker at the board and say “… and the rest is relatively easy.”  And for him, I never once doubted that it was!  But for the rest of us mere mortals we found the remaining proofs to be a bit more substantial in nature.  I often wondered how many theses and careers had been built around these proofs that he could so easily call “relatively easy”.

Suffice to say, he was one of the professors who left a mark on everyone who took his class, and he was more than willing to help those of us that were not about to found a Google.  And the things I learned in his class have been incredibly relevant and helpful to the work I’ve done since, and likely the same can be said of most every student that went through his class.

Our condolences to his family, friends, colleagues, and students.

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