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Thursday, January 08, 2015

The History of the History of the History of Computer Science

In 2007, the science historian Martin Campbell-Kelly wrote an article The History of the History of Software, where he writes about how he initially wrote histories of the technical aspects of computer software back in the 70's but now he's evolved into writing more about the applications and implications of software technologies. He argues that the whole field of the history of software has moved in the same directions.

Donald Knuth made an emotional argument against this trend last May in his Stanford Kailath lecture Let's Not Dumb Down the History of Computer Science. If you can find an hour, this is a video well worth watching.

In the January CACM Thomas Haigh gave his thoughts in The Tears of Donald Knuth. Haigh argues that Knuth conflates the History of Computer Science with the History of Computing. Haigh says that historians focus on the latter and the History of Computer Science doesn't get enough emphasis.

Let me mention two recent examples in that History of Computing category. The Imitation Game give a great, though slightly fictionalized, portrait of the computing and computer science pioneer Alan Turing focusing on his time at Bletchley Park breaking the Enigma code. Walter Isaacson, whose histories of Franklin, Einstein and Jobs I thoroughly enjoyed, writes The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution which tells the stories of computers from Ada Lovelace to Google (oddly stopping before social networks).

But what can we do about the History of Computer Science, particularly for theoretical computer science? We live in a relatively young field where most of the great early researchers still roam among us. We should take this opportunity to learn and record how our field developed. I've dabbled a bit myself, talking to several of the pioneers, writing (with Steve Homer) a short history of computational complexity in the 20th Century and a history chapter in The Golden Ticket.

But I'm not a historian. How do we collect the stories and memories of the founders of the field and tell their tales while we still have a chance?

5 comments:

  1. As a community, you should follow the example of the American Institute of Physics and create an archive of interview transcripts: http://aip.org/history/ohilist/transcripts.html

    ReplyDelete
  2. --------
    Lance Fortnow wonders "How do we collect the stories and memories of the founders of the field [of computer science] and tell their tales while we still have a chance?"
    --------

    We can all be grateful to George Dyson for his recent book Turing's Cathedral (2012), which more than any other history of computer science (that is known to me), draws upon extensive interviews with still-living members of the first generation of computer-science professionals.

    It is well too, to keep in mind that commonly the pedagogic of an interview substantially exceeds its historical value, for reasons that Frank Close's history of quantum field theory The Infinity Puzzle states plainly:

    --------
    "Documents, diaries, or records with dates trump even the most adament crystal-clear memories. That is the advice I received from some respected historians of science and from psychologists."

    "I know this too from my own experience. In November 1974 a momentous discovery occurred in particle physics---my area of expertise and the stage for this book. […] The drama of November 1974 was so important for science that I made a daily diary of the unfolding events on an old-fashioned pocket tape recorder, which I then mislaid. During a house move, some twenty years later, the tape resurfaced. When played, its message differed so much from my apparently perfect memories in several respects — such as the order of events, locations, and even of the people involved — that I imagined that someone must have interfered with it."

    "It is possible that my case is atypical, but experienced professionals would suggest that it is not."
    --------

    Similar considerations are set forth by David Politzer, in his aptly-titled Nobel Lecture "The dilemma of attribution" (2005).

    A strong candidate (as it seems to me) for the single book that best makes sense of these considerations is Daniel Levin Becker's Many Subtle Channels (2012). Becker's work helps me to resist the temptation of adding my own recollections to the mix … my mother worked at Iowa State in John Vincent Atanasoff's laboratory, and as a graduate student I was good friends with a (very shy) researcher know to me as Mike Newman … it was only toward the end of our time together, in the context of a discussion of John von Neumann's ideas regarding computing, that Mike mentioned that John was his brother. These memories provide ample raw material for an exceedingly interesting story … that however would be only a story.

    One message of the OuLiPo (as well-summarized by Becker) is that the responsibilities of a story-teller are not obviously less than the responsibilities of a historian. And so, one personal resolution for 2015 (that I hope many people share) is to contribute conscientiously to the STEAM community's store of stories.

    --------
    @book{cite-key, Author = {Becker, D.L.},
    Publisher = {Harvard University Press}, Title =
    {Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential
    Literature}, Year = {2012}}

    @book{cite-key, Author = {Close, F.E. and
    Close, F.}, Publisher = {Basic Books}, Title =
    {The Infinity Puzzle: Quantum Field Theory and
    the Hunt for an Orderly Universe}, Year =
    {2011}}

    @book{cite-key, Address = {New York}, Author =
    {Dyson, George,}, Publisher = {Pantheon Books},
    Title = {Turing's cathedral: the origins of the
    digital universe}, Year = {2012}}

    @article{cite-key, Author = {Politzer, H.
    David}, Journal = {Proceedings of the National
    Academy of Sciences}, Number = {22}, Pages =
    {7789-7793}, Title = {The dilemma of
    attribution}, Volume = {102}, Year = {2005}}
    --------

    ReplyDelete
  3. If a professional historian can't be found/convinced to take on the task, maybe someone should apply for a grant from whatever funding agency funds this kind of thing (NSF? Maybe elsewhere...) to hire a history of science grad student or postdoc to do it...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In regard to funding opportunities, it's notable that Daniel Levin Becker's Many Subtle Channels (the history of the OuLiPo referenced above) originated in a one-year Fulbright Fellowship.

      -----
      Wikipedia  The Fulbright Program is one of the most prestigious awards programs worldwide, operating in over 155 countries. Fifty-three Fulbright alumni have won Nobel Prizes: seventy-eight have won Pulitzer Prizes. More Nobel laureates are former Fulbright recipients than any other award program
      -----

      A proposal for a well-crafted program historical researchl, global in scope, accompanied by letters of support from prominent computer scientists, would receive respectful Fulbright consideration (at the very least). If matching funds could sustain a 2-3 year fellowship, so much the better!

      Delete
    2. In regard to funding opportunities, it's notable that Daniel Levin Becker's Many Subtle Channels (the history of the OuLiPo referenced above) originated in a one-year Fulbright Fellowship.

      -----
      Wikipedia  The Fulbright Program is one of the most prestigious awards programs worldwide, operating in over 155 countries. Fifty-three Fulbright alumni have won Nobel Prizes: seventy-eight have won Pulitzer Prizes. More Nobel laureates are former Fulbright recipients than any other award program
      -----

      A well-crafted historical proposal, global in scope, accompanied by letters of support from prominent computer scientists, would receive respectful consideration (at the very least). If matching funds could sustain a 2-3 year fellowship, so much the better!

      Delete