Thursday, January 22, 2015

Knuth on history

OK, this is a bit complicated.

So we'll take it in pieces.

  • About a year ago, Don Knuth (yes, that Don Knuth) gave an invited talk at Stanford. It was the 2014 Kailath Lecture, and Knuth entitled his talk "Let's Not Dumb Down the History of Computer Science".

    "Computer programmers have a term for what I'm about to do: it's called 'flaming'," said Knuth, to laughter from the audience.

    Knuth spends the first half of his talk describing what he *likes* about the history of science, which he sees as a strong and well-established field. "But the good news," he says, "comes mostly from the history of other fields, such as the history of Mathematics, while the bad news comes from the history of Computer Science."

  • We pick up the story with Thomas Haigh's essay in the January Communications of the ACM: The Tears of Donald Knuth. Haigh notes that "The online video eventually showed something remarkable: his lecture focused on a single paper, Martin Campbell-Kelly's 2007 'The History of the History of Software.'"

  • You can find that manuscript here: The History of the History of Software. It's a pretty interesting paper, full of observations about the difficulties of trying to write about the history of software, such as the fact that much of that software no longer runs, nor even can be run, and the fact that often what we have left is software documentation, which isn't the same as the software itself.

  • Haigh makes his own attempt to crystallize and summarize Knuth's concern:
    In his lecture Knuth worried that a "dismal trend" in historical work meant that "all we get nowadays is dumbed down" through the elimination of technical detail. According to Knuth "historians of math have always faced the fact that they won't be able to please everybody." He feels that other historians of science have succumbed to "the delusion that ... an ordinary person can understand physics ..."

    Haigh proposes that one important distinction between computer science and fields versus mathematics or physics is the extreme youth, in a relative sense, of computer science, which leads to a limited amount of support for the history of computer science:

    Thus the kind of historical work Knuth would like to read would have to be written by computer scientists themselves. Some disciplines support careers spent teaching history to their students and writing history for their practitioners. Knuth himself holds up the history of mathematics as an example of what the history of computing should be. It is possible to earn a Ph.D. within some mathematics departments by writing a historical thesis (euphemistically referred to as an "expository" approach). Such departments have also been known to hire, tenure, and promote scholars whose research is primarily historical. Likewise medical schools, law schools, and a few business schools have hired and trained historians. A friend involved in a history of medicine program recently told me that its Ph.D. students are helped to shape their work and market themselves differently depending on whether they are seeking jobs in medical schools or in history programs. In other words, some medical schools and mathematics departments have created a demand for scholars working on the history of their disciplines and in response a supply of such scholars has arisen.
  • What can be done about this problem? Lance Fortnow considers the problem in his recent essay, The History of the History of the History of Computer Science.
    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?

  • Campbell-Kelly, himself, is well aware that the history he is writing is not the history others would like to have written:
    The book I wrote was a fairly standard, competent if undistinguished, business history and most business historians would recognize it as such. Nonetheless, Perkins is surely right in characterizing the kind of software history we would all like to see.
  • Haigh, meanwhile, defends the field, stating that:
    Contrary both to Knuth's despair and to Campbell-Kelly's story of a march of progress away from technical history, some scholars with formal training in history and philosophy have been turning to topics with more direct connections to computer science over the past few years.

So where does that leave us? From my own perspective, I've never been a great student of history. I'm not sure why, it just never has been my thing.

But I do agree that recording a true and accurate history of computer science is a worthy goal, and I'm glad such a distinguished roster of thinkers are trying to make it happen.

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