Readings in computer science

What are some of the most important ideas in computer science? Whose character and work represents computer science especially well? If we could have only a day or two with a student and knew that the student would never again enter a computer science classroom, what would we share with that student?

My colleagues asked for articles that we might include in a seminar for all incoming students. Here are my suggestions:

  • Fred Brooks led the effort to develop software for the IBM System/360 computer in the early 1960s. This was an early effort at developing software on a large scale. From that experience he drew lessons that have application not only in software engineering but also in the planning and development of any large and ambitious enterprise. He shared these lessons in an essay (and later a book) titled The Mythical Man-Month. This essay invites readers to think about how we can achieve more by working with others.
  • Fred Brooks went on to a long career teaching and guiding research at the University of North Carolina. The largest computer programs rank among the most complex creations of human minds. What are the prospects of finding ways of simplifying the task of designing and building software? Are huge gains possible? Are the limits within ourselves or in the nature of the world outside of ourselves? Professor Brooks offered his perspective in No Silver Bullet—Essence and Accident in Software Engineering. This essay invites readers to think about limits of reason and automation.
  • Vannevar Bush was a professor and dean at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He became the president of the Carnegie Institution, a philanthropic foundation that provided important support for scientific research in the years before government assumed a large role. Then, during the Second World War, he directed the United States Office of Scientific Research and Development. At the very end of the war, just as engineers were nearing the completion of the first computers, he wrote about future developments in that field. Nearly half a century before the World Wide Web, he described something very much like the World Wide Web in an essay titled As We May Think. This essay invites us to think about the challenges of predicting the future and about the most significant consequences of the development of computing.
  • In 1962, David Gale and Lloyd Shapely published a paper titled College Admissions and the Stability of Marriage. Gale was a mathematician and economist. Shapely was a mathematician. They considered the problem of match-making: people seeking partners in marriage or students seeking a place in a college’s entering class. They defined their problem, described a solution, and offered a proof of their method’s correctness in English, without mathematical notations or formulas. In this way, their paper stood out among other articles in the journal of mathematics in which it appeared! Their work led to much subsequent work by others and to applications that include the assignment of medical residents to hospitals. In 2012, Shapely shared the Nobel award in economics (Gale had died. The prize is not awarded posthumously.) This essay invites us to think about the many forms that mathematics can take and the many ways it can enter our lives. Because fifty years elapsed between the first idea and the prize that recognized its importance, the essay also invites us to think about time in our lives. How long will we continue to study, learn, develop our ideas, and work to gain acceptance for our ideas?

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