"I have a mind like a steel... uh... thingy." Patrick Logan's weblog.

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

John McCarthy

Paul Graham describes John McCarthy as one of his heroes. Hopefully computer science will remember certain people like McCarthy the same way we remember the significant contributions of scientists from other disciplines.

John McCarthy

John McCarthy invented Lisp, the field of (or at least the term) artificial intelligence, and was an early member of both of the top two computer science departments, MIT and Stanford. No one would dispute that he's one of the greats, but he's an especial hero to me because of Lisp.

It's hard for us now to understand what a conceptual leap that was at the time. Paradoxically, one of the reasons his achievement is hard to appreciate is that it was so successful. Practically every programming language invented in the last 20 years includes ideas from Lisp, and each year the median language gets more Lisplike.

In 1958 these ideas were anything but obvious. In 1958 there seem to have been two ways of thinking about programming. Some people thought of it as math, and proved things about Turing Machines. Others thought of it as a way to get things done, and designed languages all too influenced by the technology of the day. McCarthy alone bridged the gap. He designed a language that was math. But designed is not really the word; discovered is more like it.

Several other of Graham's hero biographies are worth reading too.

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Portland, Oregon, United States
I'm usually writing from my favorite location on the planet, the pacific northwest of the u.s. I write for myself only and unless otherwise specified my posts here should not be taken as representing an official position of my employer. Contact me at my gee mail account, username patrickdlogan.