Joel Moses, Institute Professor Emeritus and computer science trailblazer, dies at 80

Institute Professor Joel Moses Image courtesy of MIT News

Institute Professor Emeritus Joel Moses PhD ’67, an innovative computer scientist and dedicated teacher who held multiple leadership positions at MIT, died on May 29 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. He was 80 years old.

Moses, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering and the former Engineering Systems Division, served as associate department head, department head, dean of engineering, and provost during his distinguished career.

“Our community will forever be grateful to Joel for his vision, dedication, and citizenship, and I will forever be grateful for his brilliant mind and his wonderful heart,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif wrote in a letter to the MIT community today.

As a researcher, Moses is well-known for his work to develop Macsyma in the late 1960s, which was one of the first computer systems that could manipulate complex mathematical expressions, like those in algebra or calculus.

The Macsyma program enables a computer to solve mathematical problems such as differentiating and integrating expressions, manipulating matrices, and deriving symbolic solutions of equations. Macsyma was faster and more accurate than other methods — problems in engineering or physics that would have taken six or seven months to calculate could now be solved in under an hour. The program influenced many powerful computational tools that are an outgrowth of Moses’ research. He was honored by the National Academy of Engineering in 1986 for this pioneering work in symbolic algebraic manipulation by a computer.

“One of the lessons that I have learned from Joel is that we gain flexibility at the cost of increased complexity as we proceed from tree structures, through layered systems, to arbitrary networks,” says Gerald Jay Sussman ’68, PhD ’73, the Panasonic Professor of Electrical Engineering, who first met Moses when he took a computer programming class that Moses, then an undergraduate at Columbia University, was teaching for high school students. “The most astonishing point is that Joel’s philosophy of the connection between the structure of a system and the ability to adapt it to new conditions is not just about computer systems, but rather about such diverse systems as corporate and military structure and social order. His extensive administrative work at MIT powerfully illustrates this philosophy. He continually constructed new avenues of communication among previously disconnected entities, building layered systems that could rapidly adjust to novel and unanticipated conditions.”

Moses’ skills as an administrator were felt across MIT. As dean of engineering, he launched a long-range plan called “Engineering with a Big E” to incorporate concepts from the social sciences and management into the engineering curriculum. He also oversaw the creation of MIT’s first five-year combined bachelor’s and master’s programs in engineering.

Later, as provost, Moses saw the need for a building that would bring electrical engineering and computer science closer together to foster faculty collaboration and provide opportunities for students. His vision culminated in the opening of the Ray and Maria Stata Center in 2001. At the groundbreaking ceremony, Moses was honored for his efforts to make the building a reality.

He was also instrumental in the creation of the Systems Design and Management graduate program, a unique multidisciplinary program that prepares graduates for leadership roles at the intersection of engineering and business. An advocate for student success, Moses worked to increase payments for research and teaching assistants and tripled the funding for undergraduate and graduate student associations’ activities.

Moses was born in Mandatory Palestine in 1941. His parents, Bernhard and Golda, who were Jewish, had fled Nazi Germany two years before his birth through a harrowing journey that saw them arrested in Palestine and nearly sent back to Berlin for fear they were German spies.

From an early age, Moses showed an interest in math — he was asked to grade papers for his fourth-grade math class when the teacher was out of town. When Moses was 13, his family emigrated from the new state of Israel to Brooklyn, New York.

He attended Columbia University, and while his parents tried to convince him to become a doctor, Moses chose mathematics instead. As a master’s student at Columbia, Moses first realized he could use computers to do math. This laid the groundwork for Macsyma and his later research. He earned a PhD at MIT in 1967, working under the supervision of artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, and wrote his thesis about the design and development of a computer program for performing symbolic integration.

After graduation, Moses joined the faculty as an assistant professor in computer science and began work on Macsyma in earnest two years later. An original member of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (which would later merge with the Laboratory for Computer Science to form CSAIL), his research efforts were centered on key algorithms that could simplify and integrate mathematical expressions.

“Joel was a beloved member of the CSAIL community. His impact on CSAIL, MIT, and beyond has been extraordinary. His Macsyma project developed in the 1970s was the first attempt to use a machine to do symbolic mathematics — the system is still in use today. He will be greatly missed,” says Daniela Rus, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and director of CSAIL.

Moses was also an avid music lover. In 1968, he attended an MIT party held after a concert at the New England Conservatory, where he met Peggy Garvey, who had been singing jazz at the concert. They were married for 52 years. Music remained important to him, and 30 years later, while on sabbatical at Columbia, Moses auditioned for and won a spot in a singing class at the prestigious Juilliard School.

Moses began his career as an administrator in 1974, when he was named associate director of the Laboratory for Computer Science and then associate head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) in 1978. Moses once said that, unlike many of his fellow faculty members, he found administration, and especially committee work, to be particularly interesting.

“You really get to the essence of issues, surprisingly, and ideas come forth that you wouldn’t have expected,” he said in a 2009 interview.

For Moses, administration often involved supporting others, especially junior faculty members, and finding ways to encourage collaboration. As EECS department head in 1981, he launched a popular seminar series, affectionately called “the Moses Seminar,” where faculty from every school gathered to talk about technical issues. Moses also spearheaded a series of faculty dinners and created a symposium that sought to build bridges between faculty in the humanities and their colleagues in engineering and science.  

“Joel’s ‘Moses Seminar’ Friday lunches were a real highlight for me, exemplifying Joel and MIT at their finest. Topics discussed were from all over the ’Tute, and collegiality and bantering were the norm,” reflects Institute Professor Ron Rivest. “Joel’s calm and amused manner inspired us all; he was the visionary who made them happen.”

During his time as provost, Moses led key budgeting initiatives and launched a retirement incentive plan that improved the financial footing of MIT while creating more openings for new faculty. Moses, who enjoyed helping those around him succeed, said his favorite part of being provost was presenting faculty awards.

Fiercely dedicated to improving his alma mater at every turn, Moses was also warm, friendly, and always ready to share a laugh with friends and colleagues. For instance, as provost, he began each meeting with department heads by asking someone to tell a joke.

After stepping down as provost in 1998, Moses rejoined the faculty and was named an Institute Professor one year later. He continued to be active in research and administration, most recently as acting director of MIT’s Engineering Systems Division.

Moses is survived by his wife, Peggy, sons Jesse and David, and brother, Abraham. Gifts in memory of Joel Moses may be made to MIT to support the Student Life, Wellness, and Support Fund, and to the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center at NewBridge on the Charles.

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