Remembering Rajeev Motwani, 1962-2009


IIT Kanpur deeply mourns the tragic and untimely demise of one of its most illustrious alumni: Rajeev Motwani. Rajeev did BTech in Computer Science and Engineering in 1983 from IIT Kanpur, after which he went to the University of California, Berkeley to do his PhD which he completed in 1988 under the supervision of Professor Richard Karp. Rajeev then joined the faculty of the department of Computer Science at Stanford University. He was awarded the IITK Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2006.

Rajeev was a brilliant researcher who made fundamental contributions to many areas: randomized algorithms, computational complexity, approximation algorithms, data mining, mathematical modelling of the world-wide web etc. Rajeev was one of the group of five researchers who gave the world the PCP theorem, one of the most stunningly beautiful and immensely deep results of the modern era. It is this contribution for which Rajeev was awarded the prestigious Godel Prize in 2001. Rajeev was a great teacher too; he has co-authored two books, one on randomized algorithms and another on theory of computation which have taught these two subjects to students all over the world.

Those in IIT Kanpur who knew Rajeev as an undergraduate, remember him not only for his academic brilliance but also for the good cheer that he always exuded. He was a very friendly person, and remained so all through his life. His office door at Stanford was ever open – to students, to young entrepreneurs, to academicians from all across the world, and to his friends from IIT Kanpur. Rajeev was also closely involved with the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at IIT Kanpur as a mentor in its research program. He was on the board of Research I Foundation of the department since 2003.

Rajeev possessed the rare genius of using the most abstract of theories to solve practical problems impacting society at large. For example, he made use of his expertise in randomized algorithms in building a drug design system for Pfizer. Rajeev was an early “unofficial mentor” of Google founders Sergei Brin and Larry Page. He helped them through the initial years when the basic page ranking algorithms were implemented and continued hand-holding the young company when they went in search of venture capitalists. Google founder, Brin, described Rajeev as his “friend and teacher” and said that “... his legacy and personality lives on in the students, projects, and companies he has touched. Today, whenever you use a piece of technology, there is a good chance a little bit of Rajeev Motwani is behind it.”

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