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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
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A Penny for Your Thoughts or $2 Mil for UB Professor's

A UB professor has been awarded what is believed to be the largest single grant ever given to a philosopher.

Barry Smith, professor of philosopohy, received a $2 million Wolfgang Paul research award from Germany's Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Nov. 6 in Berlin.

"I have not completely digested the consequences," stated a "shocked" Smith in an e-mail.

"[Ontology] is the fancy word for 'the science of being,'" explained UB professor of philosophy William J. Baumer.

Through his studies of ontology, Smith has developed techniques to address the difficulties of classification, which in the last 20 years has become increasingly necessary for information systems and large database work. Smith described his work as creating "a sort of central taxonomy of objects."

"He is applying his knowledge of philosophy to information systems," said Baumer.

Smith noted two major problems in the field of information science. First, the transfer of real-world data to computer code is naturally difficult, and the constant temptation to simplify massive quantities of information can produce results removed from reality. Second, it is difficult to build theories of real-world objects (necessary for representation in information systems) which then allow them to be represented in information systems.

The application of Smith's work to the information systems field is part of a $23 million project by Germany's Wolfgang Paul Program, a government-funded research program that promotes international research cooperation. Fourteen experts, most working in natural science fields such as physics, biology and medicine, will be able to conduct research at top German institutions. Smith will take a leave of absence from UB for the 2002-2003 academic year to focus his efforts on research.

UB Provost Elizabeth Capadi stated in a press release that "[the university] is very proud of Dr. Smith's accomplishment in receiving this award. ... The tremendous prestige of the award reflects the depth of the international regard in which his work is held."

The selection process for the grants was based on nominations by German universities and research institutions. Two colleagues in Leipzig, Barbara Heller of the Institute for Medical Information Statistics and Epidemiology, and Heinrich Herre of the Faculty of Computer Science and Mathematics, prepared Smith's nomination.

"I will be eternally in their debt for the enormous efforts they have made on my behalf," said Smith.

Award recipients must spend the allocated funds as efficiently as possible within three years. Smith will be frequently traveling to Germany to plan his project with officials from Leipzig and Berlin.

Traveling while doing paid research has its perks. Smith described Leipzig as "an exciting place, which was the center of resistance against the West German community dictatorship. It has a very pleasant old town, with strong associations to Goethe and Bach. It is in one of the pubs, the Auerbach's Keller, in the heart of Leipzig, that Goethe's Dr. Fause sold his soul to the devil."

Smith will concentrate on his research of ontology for the next three years, but said he is "happy [he] will still be able to teach most of [his] classes at UB during the period of the award."

"One nice feature of the award is that I can take some of my students and colleagues with me to Leipzig for longer and shorter periods," he said.

Smith is currently teaching classes in the philosophy of social reality and in geospatial ontology. This spring he will teach a graduate seminar on religion, revolution, terrorism and war, which will be an introduction to advanced political philosophy in wartime. The course will specifically focus on Islam and its philosophical and geopolitical implications.



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