Time is optimal for publication of comprehensive encyclopedia

Steven Schultz

How do airlines devise efficient schedules for routing airplanes between hundreds of destinations?


Christodoulos Floudas and his Encyclopedia of Optimization

How do computer networks find the optimal path for torrents of data?

How do financial strategists arrange investment portfolios for the best balance between risks and gains?

The problems are diverse, but the solutions are related. They each benefit from a set of mathematical techniques collectively known as optimization. With roots extending back to the work of ancient mathematicians, optimization has grown in the last 50 years into an important field of research with experts in many areas of industry and academics.

Until now, however, there has been no central resource for trading knowledge between the many specialties, which is why Professor of Chemical Engineering Christodoulos Floudas thought it was time to create a comprehensive encyclopedia.

'Heroic effort'

After six years of work, Floudas and co-editor Panos Pardalos of the University of Florida have completed the Encyclopedia of Optimization, which was published recently by Kluwer Academic Publishers. With five volumes plus an index, the encyclopedia includes 500 articles by more than 400 authors in fields from astronomy to computer science to biology.

"It is a treasure house of information," said Ramon Moore, a professor of computer science emeritus at Ohio State University whose work shaped the field in the 1960s. Moore called the encyclopedia a "heroic effort" for pulling together such wide-ranging material from so many authors.

"There is no doubt that the Encyclopedia of Optimization will become the standard and most important reference in this very dynamic research field," said Dingzhu Du of the University of Minnesota. "It is a great tool for forming and validating initial ideas, browsing and brainstorming."

For Floudas, who uses optimization to address fundamental problems in chemical engineering and biology, the project was an education not only about the broader field but also the challenges of orchestrating such a large work.

"There were many instances when I thought, 'We have spent all this time and made all this effort, but maybe it won't substantiate,'" said Floudas.

"It is a very rich field," he said. "We had to work a lot in the first year just to identify subjects and to identify the potential authors." Help in that regard came from a 29-member advisory board that he and Pardalos recruited for the project.

The next challenge was corralling the authors into actually completing and submitting their assigned articles, which took from 1997 to 1999. In the end, Floudas counts himself fortunate to have finished no more than a year behind the originally projected date. "We had to be very well organized," he said.

Quick overview

The encyclopedia contains three kinds of articles: broad explanations of general topics; technical articles on specific techniques and applications; and short biographies of important figures in the history of optimization. A key goal, said Floudas, is to allow researchers encountering the subject for the first time, either as students or as established researchers in other fields, to obtain a quick and useful overview. "We want to provide a smooth transition," he said.

Floudas contributed his own article on a technique called global optimization, which he has been using to study the structure of protein molecules. For decades, biologists have been trying to understand the process by which newly minted protein molecules, which start as long, straight chains, fold themselves into intricate three-dimensional shapes. Floudas uses optimization techniques to predict the final shape that requires the least energy during the folding process for any protein.

Now that the encyclopedia is finished, Floudas is relieved to return full time to his own research, but he knows it is only a temporary reprieve. "When you create an encyclopedia it is a never-ending effort," he said, noting that there will always be a need for new volumes as the field progresses.

"It is a dynamic and changing field," he said. "That is what keeps it interesting."

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