Software Engineering

This past week of February was National Engineers Week, and it’s always an excellent time to learn about different engineers today as well as those whose shoulders we stand on. I haven’t practiced engineering as a professional in over eight years, but I still work with engineers and structural engineering every day at Bentley Systems.

I wanted to post a bit on some of the history of software engineering and, in particular, just how much women have contributed and really created that discipline.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace pictured with her table of algorithms created as an example code

Lovelace is widely recognized as having created the very first computer code language, when transcribing in her shorthand some mathematics to use on Charles Babbage’s difference engine. Stephen Wolfram did some research on Lovelace’s life and wrote a fascinating article on her life and work.


WWII Computers

Prior to the general adoption of digital computers, a “computer” was actually a human person who sat and did calculations all day. These were almost without exception women, many of whom had degrees in mathematics but were not able to continue on in the field due to their gender. During World War II, when the US Army was researching the first digital computer — the ENIAC, a group of these women who had been calculating munition trajectories were hired on to encode the same calculations into that computer. They wrote the computer code and the debugging for the first computer.

The excellent documentary “Top Secret Rosies1 contains many first-person interviews with these women and the men who fought in WWII, using their work everyday in the war.

Katherine Johnson

She was a computer when computers wore skirts.

And Katherine Johnson was just about the best. So good, in fact, that when digital computers were being used to calculate the mission trajectories for the first moon landing, John Glen insisted that they be checked by Johnson first2. has a wonderful set of video interviews about her career.

Last year, Johnson was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom —one of the two highest civilian honor this country bestows— in honor of her accomplishments as well as her being a role model for women and people of color.

Grace Hopper

Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was an early computer scientist who is probably best known for having discovered an actual bug (a moth) in a piece of computer equipment (a printer). However, it was her contribution of creating the first digital compiler for taking human-readable code and converting it to machine language that was truly a remarkable achievement.

As a I told my after school coding club kids last Fall, anytime you are debugging code so a computer can understand it, think about Admiral Hopper!

Margaret Hamilton

Margaret Hamilton standing next to listings of the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) source code (Courtesy Wikipedia)

While Katherine Johnson and others had calculated the trajectory for the Apollo mission, the spacecraft itself now had digital computers on board. Margaret Hamilton was the lead software engineer —a phrase coined by Anthony Oettinger and then put into wide use by Hamilton— for the Apollo craft’s operating system. Her foresight into operation priorities saved the day when a radar system malfunctioned but the guidance system architecture still landed the lunar module. She founded Hamilton Technologies in 1986.


I can’t help but wonder that men haven’t simply co-opted the role of software engineer from women once it became clear that software was a worthwhile endeavor. However, there are many great women engineers practicing today, in both software and other engineering disciplines. I have the privilege of working with many at Bentley Systems. However, we’ve done a great disservice to young women in creating a culture that fails to encourage women into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. STEM programs go a long way to help right this, but I think we also need to recognize that women have managed to create much of the modern world we know today, particularly in the field of software. And this in spite of the uphill climb many of these women faced in just finding work at all!

So in honor of engineers week, let’s be sure to let young women know that not only is their a future in STEM for them, but there is also an amazing past to be proud of!

Coding is for girls” by Anne McGraw

Further Reading

  1. At the time of this writing, it was on DVD only and not especially easy to find. I was able to rent it from Netflix and it may be for sale on Amazon. I highly encourage anyone interested in tech, history, or warfare to watch it. []
  2. Always check the computer kids! It’s only as good as the programmer. []

Right In the Thick of the Carbon

SciAm on a (depressing) report ranking the top 100 U.S. metropolitan areas in terms of amount of carbon emissions. The part that really startled me (emphasis added):

The residents of Lexington, Ky., Indianapolis and Cincinnati emit the most greenhouse gases—nearly 2.5 times as much carbon on a per capita basis as their peers at the top of the list with smaller footprints. But these cities have the added burden of being major regional transportation hubs; in other words, their per capita emissions burden is skewed upward by the freight needs of the rest of the country, according to senior research analyst Andrea Sarzynski at Brookings (based in Washington, D.C., ranked 89th).

Rounding out the bottom 10 biggest emitters per capita are: Knoxville, Tenn., Harrisburg, Pa., Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Nashville, Louisville, Ky., and Toledo, Ohio.

No.s 4 and 8, here in TN. One of my first thoughts on what these cities might have in common is that they are all widespread cities in which cars are the dominant means of transportation (that is: almost no bikes, walking, mass transit, etc.) – not that this is by any means uncommon in the U.S. Perhaps this is the silver lining around $4/gal. gasoline?

Just Cool It

Ever heard the one about all the scientists in the seventies who claimed the planet was cooling and that’s why we can’t trust scientists who now claim the planet is warming? Yeah, me too. Well, next time you hear it, you can point out it was never true in the first place. The consensus back then was that the planet was warming. We’re just more sure of it now after three decades of research.

Thomas Peterson of the National Climatic Data Center surveyed dozens of peer-reviewed scientific articles from 1965 to 1979 and found that only seven supported global cooling, while 44 predicted warming. Peterson says 20 others were neutral in their assessments of climate trends. The study reports, “There was no scientific consensus in the 1970s that the Earth was headed into an imminent ice age. “A review of the literature suggests that, to the contrary, greenhouse warming even then dominated scientists’ thinking about the most important forces shaping Earth’s climate on human time scales.”

The journal article can be found here [.pdf]. via RealClimate

For The Last Time: The Plane Takes Off!

So, after months and months of online discussion, Mythbusters Jamie and Adam put the physics where the rubber meets the road.


Almost two years ago, I (and most of the internet, it seems) saw a thought question at regarding an airplane on a giant conveyor belt. If the belt moved the exact same speed as the airplane’s wheels – only in the opposite direction – would the plane take off? Well, the answer was immediately clear to me, but that’s for the sole reason of I took several semesters of statics, dynamics, and physics in college. I knew immediately that the plane would take off, without any question. I did my best to clearly explain why this was the case in the ensuing discussion on Jason Kottke’s website1.

Mythbusters graphic

Well, last night, I (and Kottke, along with a lot of others) were vindicated as we watched a little yellow, single seat ultralight take off from a 2,000 foot long conveyor belt on a new episode of Mythbusters.

Now, as just a brief – and parenthetical – afterthought: it always feels good to be proven right. However, one of the most awesome experiences in science is when all common sense tells you one thing, but the numbers and scientific logic tell you the opposite. In that case, when a empirical result supports the unlikely or seemingly impossible, it is a marvelous and wonderful surprise. Think about all the really cool experiments you ever saw in science class or on Mr. Wizard, and I’ll bet they fit into that latter case. What you thought couldn’t happen does indeed happen right before your eyes. That very thing has made many a person fall in love with science for the rest of their lives and I sincerely hope that this experiment did the same for a lot of people last night.

Plane taking off.

In the meantime: I told you so!

  1. Kottke has really taken some ownership of this question, too. He even live-blogged last night’s episode. I, unfortunately, had to TiVo it and watch it this morning. Hence, the somewhat late post of mine. []

Al Gore and IPCC Awarded Nobel Peace Prize

Well, despite you’ve already read this already somewhere else, Al Gore and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were jointly awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in raising global awareness on climate change. It’s true that the past year or so has really been the tipping point for global warming in the public consciousness (I know that I’ve certainly learned a great deal on the topic). However, despite this, he’s still not going to run for the office of president in 2008.

Tripoli Six Are Alive and Freed

I cannot believe I missed this terrific news a week ago. The five Bulgarian nurses and Palestinian doctor who have been falsely imprisoned and tortured for 8 1/2 years in Libya have been freed. They arrived in Bulgaria last week. Their story is a dark one for not just their lives, but for for medical science hoping to bring light into the world only to be snuffed out by fear and ignorance. Despite the near certainty they would all be put to death, they are now free (via Aetiology)

Extra Daylight Causes Warming

I feel that it is my general desire to believe in the best in people that makes me wish this was a satirical letter to the editor, however I suspect that Ms. Meskimen is stone-cold serious. Last week, she wrote that “Daylight Savings Time started almost a month early this year. You would think that members of Congress would have considered the warming effect that an extra hour of daylight would have on our climate. Or did they?” Perhaps Congress has assumed more authority than the Constitution provides for them, if they are changing the amount of daylight on the U.S. The letter’s author continues “Perhaps this is another ploy by a liberal Congress to make us believe that global warming is a real threat.” Actually, varying DST appeared to have a negligible effect on the country’s power usage. No word on the number of hours of daylight, as apparently we were all too hot to notice. (via BoingBoing)

Ethanol Health Risks

Angela forwarded me a similar article on some resent research which states that ethanol may have greater health risks than gasoline as a auto fuel. From the article I tagged in from New Scientist (see lower right, titled "Warning: Biofuel may harm your health"), it appears that the number of deaths increases by 185 going to an ethanol fleet from a gasoline fleet in the Stanford researchers model. That’s out of about 10,000 deaths annually, or less than 2%. Frankly, I have reservations against believing that one model can really predict within 2% (maybe if this was a summary of several studies). But assuming it is accurate, there’s always the question about what carbon emissions will do as well. Will more than 185 people die as a result of not switching to biofuels. Frankly, I think that a switch to non-carbon based fuel sources or generation of energy (e.g. – wind, solar, hydro, geo, etc.) is the only long-term, sustainable answer in any case.

More Global Warming Myths I Get To Refute

I have no idea why I feel the need to respond to this sort of crap when it flies across my radar, but someone seeded a pack of ten great lies on global warming to Newsvine from Human Events. Anyway, here’s my quick whack at setting them straight (and hopefully, some links on where to learn more of the facts). I’m not going to bother to reproduce the list here, but do feel free to go on over and vote for my article (okay, list) if that’s something you feel compelled to do.