Once a physicist: Tony Hey

Tony Hey is the corporate vice president of the external research division of Microsoft Research in Redmond, US, which is one of the leading computer-science research centres worldwide.

Tony Hey

Why did you originally choose to study physics?
I was really interested in science at school, and I also read a couple of fascinating popular-science books about quantum mechanics and special relativity. My interest in these topics made me decide to study physics at Oxford University. Straight after I graduated in 1967 I did a theoretical-physics DPhil, also at Oxford.

What did you do next?
I was awarded a Harkness fellowship to do theoretical particle-physics research at the California Institute of Technology in the US. On my first day there I met a guy with a beard sitting on the steps who said "Hi, I'm Murray". It turned out to be Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel-prize winner. I was in a group with him and Richard Feynman, which was a very transformative experience. It soon became clear that Europe was just a minor player in the world of physics. After two years at Caltech I did another postdoc at CERN, and then in 1974 I moved to the physics department at the University of Southampton in the UK.

How much did you like studying physics?
I enjoyed it immensely. It was very rewarding to feel part of a global community and be able to visit friends around the world.

Why did you switch to computer science?
After the revelations of quantum chromodynamics and the Salam–Weinberg model of weak interactions, there was relatively little to do in theoretical particle physics except confirm the details of the model. I became interested in non-perturbative problems, which can only be solved by simulating quantum field theory on a powerful computer. Eventually I became more interested in designing and programming these computers than in the physics itself. Also, after 20 years working on quarks and so on I wanted to move to an area of research that would have a real impact on people's lives. Therefore, in 1986 I moved to Southampton's electronics and computer-science department and started working on parallel computers, where I remained until I joined Microsoft in 2005.

Why did you decide to move into industry?
I had a very worthwhile time at Southampton, but I feel that UK universities are overburdened by process — when I gave a lecture, I had to worry about learning outcomes and objectives rather than being free to be inspiring and stimulating. As a result, in 2001 I took a leave of absence to run the UK research councils' e-science programme, the aim of which was to develop technologies that would allow networked, distributed, collaborative, multidisciplinary science. This needed, in my view, a mix of commercial and open-source software, so I thought there was a genuine role for IT companies, Microsoft in particular.

What is your role at Microsoft?
I am responsible for building partnerships with the academic community. Essentially I match up Microsoft researchers with a major scientific problem that computer-science technology can help to solve. At the moment I'm funding one of our leading machine-learning researchers to work with HIV researchers. He's developing data-mining tools that can be used to find genetic correlations between HIV and AIDS patients in the hope that this will help scientists to develop an effective vaccine. That's one example of how we're using computer-science research to actually help people.

How does your physics background help you?
I think my physics training is invaluable as it's given me a thorough understanding of mathematics, equations and the like. This gives me the ability to talk to most scientists and understand their work.

Do you still keep up to date with physics?
I review physics books regularly, which is a good way to keep up to date. I'm also still in contact with several former physics colleagues at CERN and various universities. One of the reasons that I moved away from theoretical physics was that after the Standard Model of particle physics became accepted, string theory was one of the main areas of research, and I was concerned that it doesn't produce many testable results — it seemed like theoretical physics was becoming more and more a mathematical exercise looking for an application. I'm interested to see that the slight scepticism I have about string theory is becoming more widespread. I'm also very excited about the Large Hadron Collider coming online this year — I hope that it will produce new results to guide the theory.

Do you have any advice for physicists wanting to get into computer science?
This is an interesting time for the whole of the IT industry because we're coming to the end of Moore's law. We're not seeing processors getting faster and faster any more because increasing the clock speed further means that the chips get so hot that they melt. Instead we're seeing a trend for having multiple processors, and the issue for the IT industry is how you program these. I think there are wonderful opportunities for smart physicists to play a role in this regard.

This article originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Physics World

last edited: March 28, 2014

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Once a physicist