Renato Capocelli (1940-1992)

Thirty years ago, I was in the middle of the second semester of my third year of undergrad, and one of the courses that I was enrolled in was on information theory. I was majoring in computer science, a major that had just been established at Sapienza University when I signed up for it in 1989, organized by a computer science department that had also just been established in 1989. A computer science department was established in 1991.

The new Sapienza computer science department was founded mostly by faculty from the Sapienza mathematics department, plus a number of people that came from other places to help start it. Among the latter, Renato Capocelli had moved to Rome from the University of Salerno, where he had been department chair of computer science.

Capocelli worked on combinatorics and information theory. In the early 90s, he had also become interested in the then-new area of zero-knowledge proofs.

Capocelli taught the information-theory course that I was attending, and it was a very different experience from the classes I had attended up to that point. To get the new major started, several professors were teaching classes outside their area, sticking close to their notes. Those teaching mathematical classes, were experts but were not deviating from the definition-theorem-proof script. Capocelli had an infectious passion for his subject, took his time to make us gain an intuitive understanding of the concepts of information theory, was full of examples and anecdotes, and always emphasized the high-level idea of the proofs.

I subsequently met several other charismatic and inspiring computer scientists and mathematicians, though Capocelli had a very different personality from most of them. He was like an earlier generation of Southern Italian intellectuals, who could be passionate about their subject in a peculiarly non-nerdy way, loving it the way one may love food, people, nature, or a full life in general.

On April 8, 1992, Renato Capocelli died suddenly and unexpectedly, though his memory lives on in the many people he inspired. The Computer Science department of the University of Salerno was named after him for a period of time.

6 thoughts on “Renato Capocelli (1940-1992)

  1. Thank you Luca for reminding us of Renato Capocelli. Renato was a great person, energetic, generous an geniale who has definitely left a sign on computer Science in Italy.
    However, I need to correct you on one thing. The Department of Scienze dell’Informazione (later named di Informatica) was established in 1991, two years after the start of the major in computer science that initially was managed by the department of Mathematics.

  2. Old fellow TCS friend; you leave me wondering now how similar that charismatic nature of Renato was compared to MIT’s Gian-Carlo Rota, whose lifespan was in a way the superset of Renato’s. Rota’s upbringing was in many ways more colorful (Switzerland, Ecuador, US, …) and Ivy league imprinted than Renato’s. But both seemed v passionate about their newly found subject …. (For Rota it was obviously combinatorics and not CS).

  3. I have never met Rota. From what I heard of him he was quite formal and intimidating. If I had to pick someone that in theory‘s reader would know and whose personality reminds me of Capocelli’s I would say Christos Papadimitriou.

  4. Thank you, Luca, this makes sense; even though Christos has a different type of charisma, I’d think.
    “Intimidating” sounds intriguing; I don’t think I’d trust a fellow mathematician if he or she weren’t sufficiently intimidating ;-). I do wonder whether Rota and Capocelli could have worked as co-authors productively on a topic or whether ego would have stood in the way.

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