Christopher Rose has a rather broad view of his chosen field of communication theory. It’s a cosmic-scale view, one might say.
“They say that when your tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But when your hammer is communication theory, I really do think it applies just about everywhere,” said Rose, professor of engineering. “I’d say that my predilection is to look at whatever big question comes across my purview through the lense of information theory.”
Rose comes to the Brown School of Engineering from Rutgers University, where he was a founding member and former director of WinLab, which partners with government and industry to develop new wireless communication technologies. In 25 years at WinLab, and in five years before that at Bell Labs, Rose says he did a good bit of what he calls “practical wireless stuff.” Much of that work dealt with the development mobile wireless networks, and it’s earned him plenty of accolades. A paper on how to reduce interference in wireless transmissions won Rose and his co-authors the IEEE Marconi Best Paper Award for 2003. He’s also a fellow of the IEEE and was a full member of the Army Science Board.
That’s all well and good, Rose says. But what really excites him is the idea of applying communication theory in new ways and in new areas.
“One of my small claims to fame,” he said, “was a Nature article that had to do with applying communication theory to a fundamental question: How do we detect whether we’re alone in the universe?”
Scientists have long assumed that alien contact would come first through radio or other electromagnetic signals. But Rose showed that radio is not a particularly efficient means of doing interstellar communication. The problem with electromagnetism is that it disperses, and the longer the distance traveled, the greater the dispersal. So interstellar distances will spread the signal awfully thin. Plus, electromagnetic signals are ephemeral. If the receiver didn’t happen to be listening while the signal was transmitting, it’s gone.
Rose’s work showed that communicating over interstellar distances can be done more efficiently by sending messages in physical form — a cosmic message in a bottle. The message doesn’t disperse, and, if packaged properly, stays put once it arrives. “As long as you can tolerate delay, it’s far more efficient to write it down and send it physically,” Rose said. “And it’s not just a little more efficient; we’re talking 15 orders of magnitude.”
This was the first time anyone had sat down and done those calculations. The work makes the point that we shouldn’t just be searching the electromagnetic spectrum for messages from aliens. We should also explore the possibility of finding a physical message.
The paper was covered widely in the press, even spurring an editorial in the New York Times. For Rose, it helped show that breadth of topics upon which communication theory could shed light. It’s also a reflection of Rose’s tendency to think well outside traditional disciplinary boundaries.
He plans to bring that same multidisciplinary approach to his other job at Brown. In addition to his faculty duties, Rose will serve as associate dean of the faculty for special initiatives. Among his charges in that job: dramatically increase the number of professors from underrepresented minorities in the physical sciences at Brown.
Rose has already started putting the flesh on his plan to do that. To him, the job calls not just for recruiting quality people, but creating an intellectual and research community around them. He hopes to encourage them to see where their research interests align — regardless of discipline — and encourage collaboration.
“We’re going to find the smart folks with a vision, then look for places where those visions overlap,” Rose said. “My job is to nudge everybody’s natural interests toward those bigger questions. I’m looking to get smart people in place, make sure they meld, and ultimately do interesting things.”
Rose says that scholars from underrepresented groups are a “ready-made cohort” for attacking big problems that cross disciplines.
“They’ve faced headwinds, so they’ve had to be smart, creative, and had to find their own niches,” Rose said. “They tend to have their tendrils out in a lot of different areas, and that’s a creativity boost.”
Last year, Rose took a sabbatical from Rutgers and worked at Brown as a visiting professor. That’s when he started to see that his vision could work here.
“One of the nice things about Brown is that it’s a very collaborative, warm environment,” he said. “In my sabbatical year, it just became more and more obvious that Brown was a good place to try this.”
“And the undergraduates here — I’ve never seen anything like them. They have a social consciousness and cohesiveness and a sense of wanting to do something for the world rather than just do something for themselves. That fits in with what we want to do.”