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.