What Is Computation?

“The meaning of computation has changed dramatically over the years. Before the late 1940s, computing meant performing mathematical calculations by hand (what nineteenth-century British schoolboys would have called ‘doing sums’). Computers were people who did such calculations. One of my former professors, Art Burks, used to tell us how he had married a ‘computer’—the term used for women who were enlisted during World War II to hand-calculate ballistic trajectories. Alice Burks was working as such a computer when she met Art.”

Pretty obvious and well-known. But then, reading the anecdote narrated in such a matter of fact way nevertheless made me smile. Accustomed to today’s language use, especially with a German background, where “computer” solely is the technical term for the machine, it really seems a bit weird (or at least quite nerdish ;-) ) to “marry a computer”.

Mitchell, M. (2009). Complexity: A Guided Tour. New York: Oxford University Press.

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