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Amazing Grace

There is no doubt that in the past (and to a lesser extent in the present) women have been treated unfairly in many situations, such as when they want to become scientists. There are some obvious cases where a Nobel Prize should have been awarded to a woman but that didn’t happen or it was awarded to a man who made a lesser contribution. At one time it was virtually impossible for a woman to get an advanced education. And there are cases where they couldn’t contribute to science or were only allowed to with disadvantageous conditions, such as no pay!

On the other hand I am a bit offended by some of the attempts at redressing this imbalance. Many people produce lists of female scientists who were ignored or who have been forgotten but fail to acknowledge that a similar number of men who made a similar level of contribution have also been forgotten. Unfortunately, except in areas where the person worked, it is all too common to forget about pioneering scientists of either gender.

So there is a bit of political correctness involved in this phenomenon and I don’t like political correctness. However, I’ll put that aside and discuss one of my favourite women scientists, from my area of work (computing), Grace Hopper.

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper (how cool is that) lived from 9 December 1906 to 1 January 1992 and not only made some important contributions to the early development of computer software but also sounded like she was a really interesting character.

She was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer, and she developed the first compiler for a computer programming language. Compilers are fiendishly complex programs which convert a program written in a “high level” language to the code a computer can execute.

The instructions computers execute are very simple and do very specific things, such as adding two numbers together. But to add two numbers the computer first has to retrieve them from memory, add them, check for overflow and other conditions, then put the result back into another part of memory. So a simple operation might involve a sequence of obscure instructions such as “MOV AL, NUM1” and “ADD AL, BL”. Remember that these are human readable words for individual machine code instructions.

Humans tend to like to use more sensible instructions like “total = price + tax” which might translate to 10 or 20 machine code instructions like those above.

So a compiler is simply a program which takes the human readable code (which itself can be obscure to non-programmers) and turns it into (even more obscure) instructions which the computer can execute. It sounds simple but it’s not. The compiler has to take potentially complex strings of instructions, check that they make sense, and turn them into machine instructions (possibly hundreds just for one line of high level code) and do it perfectly. Every time.

The high level language COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language) was developed from an earlier language called FLOW-MATIC created by Hopper. Back in the day I programmed in COBOL – amongst a lot of other languages – and I hated it because it was too inflexible and awkward. But at least it was a lot easier than programming in assembly language (a slightly simplified version of machine code) which I also did in the past.

So in my opinion that was Hopper’s greatest contribution but there are other details and anecdotes about her I would like to share here.

In 1969 she won the first “man of the year” award from the Data Processing Management Association. Yes, I believe it was called “man” of the year. Sort of ironic, I think.

Attribution of the famous quotation “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission” is often given to her. This is one of my favourite quotes and a principle I often live by too! Like many quotes it’s not certain if she really used it first but it did reveal a certain rebellious part of her personality.

She also allegedly said she would com back to haunt anyone who said “we have always done in that way” in reference to why something was done a certain way. Sure, sometimes there’s a good reason why something has been done a particular way in the past but I think there’s also room to ask why and explore alternatives. That’s how she achieved what she did.

Finally there is the “bug” anecdote. Even non-specialists know that a problem with a computer, especially in software, is often known as a bug, but why? In 1947, while working on the Mark II computer at Harvard University, an associate discovered a moth stuck in a relay which stopped the computer running (yes, mechanical relays were used back then). Hopper remarked that they were “debugging” the system.

Yes, moths aren’t bugs in the technical sense, although they are insects which some people refer to as bugs. Also the term cannot be definitively attributed to Hopper, but she did at least make it popular. We don’t need to worry about that kind of bug (an insect) much any more but we sure still have plenty of the computer type!

So yes, I think “Amazing” Grace Hopper (as she became known) was pretty cool, and I hesitate to say this, but the fact that she was a woman made her even cooler!

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