Faculty Highlights: Graeme Bailey

Professor of Computer Science -- College of Engineering

If you look up "peripatetic" in the dictionary, you should find a description of Graeme Bailey. Although the word properly refers to walking, Bailey also skis, skates, motorcycles and otherwise meanders between music, sports and his official job as a professor of computer science, with each area inspiring and motivating the others.

Photo of Faculty Highlights: Graeme Bailey

Faculty Highlights: Graeme Bailey

Playing hockey, for example, has led him to consider computer models of the human heart and lungs. Playing the piano -- at a professional level -- has inspired his explorations of how computers and humans communicate. And you might say that computer science in turn drives his participation in sports because, Bailey says, "My thinking gets sloppy when I'm not in good shape."

Then there's motorcycle racing, which is apparently just for the fun of it.

It started for the British-born Bailey with a scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where he studied piano and cello, becoming, he says, "reasonably good." That's probably an understatement, because he became a concert artist touring Britain and Scandinavia and playing on television.

But he also enjoyed science. "I felt if I went in a science direction I could actually make a difference," he says. "I was rather naive at 19, 20 years old, thinking that musicians were merely entertaining."

Although he later changed his mind and came to believe that musicians could make a difference, too ("You can have a phenomenal effect on the audience"), he decided to study mathematics while continuing with music as an avocation. It wouldn't have worked the other way around, he notes. "If you're a musician, you can't afford to have any other hobbies," he explains. "There's a fresh crowd of people coming up every year."

Sports, apparently, didn't count as a hobby. During college years he took up judo, practicing several hours a day and rising to second dan, popularly known as second-degree black belt. He continues with that interest as adviser to the Cornell Judo Club, which recently returned from the Empire State Games with three gold medals (a feat that Bailey credits mostly to coaches Bill Myers and M.P. Rouse). He also is faculty adviser to the Cornell Lunatic, which probably shouldn't be explained.

Studies at the University of Birmingham led him into topology, the branch of mathematics that deals with shapes and what happens when they are deformed. After earning his Ph.D. in 1977 he taught in England and France, and eventually was lured to the United States for what were supposed to be temporary residences at SUNY-Stony Brook and the University of Connecticut. He joined the Cornell faculty in 1986, initially as a visiting professor of mathematics, working in low-dimensional topology (if you can call four dimensions low) and combinatorial group theory.

But here's where sports intruded. Bailey enjoyed skiing, but compared with European mountains he found the local ski area "a rather small bump," so for winter recreation he turned to ice hockey. Noting that injuries were fairly common, he took first aid and paramedic courses and earned emergency medical technician certification. This led to an interest in creating computer models of the human heart. The heart idea is still on hold. Not only is the shape of the heart complicated, he points out, but the shape changes in real time.

While taking a course at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, he met researchers who wanted to model the capacity of the human lung. The lungs contain some 300 million alveoli -- tiny sacs that expand to admit air and transfer its oxygen to surrounding blood vessels. As a result of injury or disease, alveoli may collapse and then never reopen. To prevent this, doctors insert a tube in the airway and apply a little positive pressure. The trick is to apply enough pressure to keep the lungs open but not so much that they burst. He is creating a computer model that might allow virtual experiments to help doctors understand what's happening and point to better treatment solutions.

Bailey also is trying to model the ways certain proteins change their shapes as they move through the walls of cells. It's all about shapes. "This shape changes to that shape -- that's topology," he explains.

Then there's the human-computer interface, which is not about shapes.

Bailey frequently performs as a piano accompanist for singers and other instrumentalists. One day while accompanying an Ithaca College faculty singer in a recital, he wondered how the communication that passes between singer and accompanist could be programmed on a computer. "A marvelous accompanist is not this wet soggy rag that only responds," he explains. "We're nudging each other. I want to write a program that will react to the performer and cause the performer to react in turn. It's clearly possible because humans can do it."

The project is now a collaboration with Carol Krumhansl, a professor of psychology who studies how humans perceive music. The immediate goal, Bailey says, is an automated accompanist, but the long-term goal is to improve the overall connection between humans and computers. "Typing away at a keyboard is awfully sad," he says. "If we can use the arts as a way to pick up on the ways people intuitively interact with one another -- perhaps that can help to broaden our understandings of how we can deliberately interact with the machine, with a much broader bandwidth."

As if to emphasize the complexity of human communication, Bailey accompanies these ideas with broad gestures and excited facial expressions, all of which help motivate his students. Indeed, he has racked up several teaching awards, including the Kenneth A. Goldman '71 Excellence in Teaching Award, the Kendall S. Carpenter Memorial Advising Award and two ACSU Faculty of the Year Awards.

Not surprisingly, many of his students are engaged in projects that combine computing and music, and he's exploring ways to model the movements of the human body, working with faculty in the Fiber Science and Apparel Design who want to visualize how clothes move when worn.

Can a judo simulator be far behind?