Research scientist, Google
- Doctoral degree in Computer Science, University of Washington
- Master’s degree in Computer Science, Stanford
- Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, Stanford
- Research scientist, Adobe
- Computer graphics supervisor, Industrial Light and Magic (Lucasfilm)
Hollywood buffs have likely heard of a Bacon number, the shorthand for the degrees of separation between one thespian and fellow actor Kevin Bacon. Academics have probably heard of an Erdős number, a way for mathematicians to boast their proximity to prolific mathematician Paul Erdős.
But few people have heard of an Erdős-Bacon number. Dan Goldman has an Erdős-Bacon number of six, the sum of his two degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon and four from Paul Erdős. To date, he’s never met anyone with a lower number.
Dan, who earned his Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Washington in 2007, has had a varied, impressive career combining his interests in academics and film into a passion for solving visual problems. He credits funding from the Achievement Reward for College Scientists (ARCS) for helping him to pursue his research after nearly a decade working in the film industry.
After graduating from Stanford with a master’s degree in Computer Science in the mid-90s, Dan went on to work for Industrial Light and Magic, a subsidiary of Lucasfilm focused on computer graphics and animation. It was an exciting time to work in the industry; computer graphics was starting to transform entertainment, and he and his co-workers were a “small, scrappy group of people doing things that had never been done before,” he says.
During his seven years at Lucasfilm, Dan worked on a range of projects, including 101 Dalmatians (1996), Men in Black (1997), and Star Wars Episodes I and II (1999 and 2002). He most enjoyed working on Galaxy Quest (1999), he says, because the staff had a great sense of humor and were given a lot of creative freedom.
But after working in the industry for several years, Dan had moved into a supervisory role, where “most of my job was assigning interesting problems to other people,” he says.
“It always felt a bit painful,” he explains, to hand off his favorite part of his work — solving problems— to his co-workers.
And by then the industry had changed: the small, scrappy, team of co-workers he’d had before was now a staff of a thousand people “doing things that had been done before but trying to do them faster [and] cheaper,” he says.
He decided to go back to school to work on research with the potential to impact film production and the visual effects industry.
While Dan was eager to go back to school to start asking questions and focusing on his research, he wasn’t as excited to be returning to a graduate-student lifestyle and budget.
“I’d been a working stiff for seven years,” he says. “I was used to a regular paycheck, and so thinking about [that transition] was challenging for me and my wife.”
In deciding between Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the UW, funding from the ARCS fellowship — and Seattle’s more moderate climate — were critical factors in convincing Dan to stay west.
As a UW student, Dan continued to pursue his passion for solving visual problems. His early research focused on recovering the shape of objects from images, and a related but separate project focused on allowing computer graphics artists to make lighting changes to an image more rapidly and efficiently. He later worked on projects that would allow the average user to easily manipulate video, and brought this early research to his job at Adobe.
A highlight of his experience as an ARCS fellow, Dan says, was attending ARCS luncheons, which celebrate graduate students working across the university. It was a rare opportunity to learn about the work graduate students outside of his department were doing.
Outside of his studies, Dan was also a member of the Computer Science & Engineering Innertube Basketball team, which, while difficult to describe, is a “sort of water polo in innertubes,” he says.
After graduating and working at Adobe for nearly a decade, in December 2015, Dan took a job as a research scientist at Google.
There, he works on the Google Daydream team, dedicated to advancing virtual reality products. While he couldn’t disclose a lot of detail about his current projects, Dan says he joined the team that was responsible for the Jump camera rig, a 360-degree stereo camera that uses a ring of 16 Go-Pro cameras to make a seamless, panoramic 3-D image.
Looking back, he says he couldn’t have anticipated where his career would lead him — he did start out as a theater major in undergrad, before switching to computer science — but that all his career and academic experiences help inform his current work.
His career is “definitely a testament to the way things work out,” he says. “If you follow things that interest you, you’ll end up doing more things that interest you. And things that don’t seem to be related often do become related.”