On birds and frogs

I have posted before about the two cultures of pure mathematicians – the theory-builders and the problem-solvers.  Thanks to string theorist and SF author Hannu Rajaniemi, I have just seen a fascinating paper by Freeman Dyson, which draws a similar distinction – between the birds (who survey the broad landscape, making links between disparate branches of mathematics) and the frogs (who burrow down in the mud, solving particular problems in specific branches of the discipline).   This distinction is analogous to that between a focus on breadth and a focus on depth, respectively, as strategies  in search.   As Dyson says, pure mathematics as a discipline needs both personality-types if it is to make progress.   Yet, a tension often exists between these types:  in my experience, frogs are often disdainful of birds for lacking deep technical expertise.   I have less often encountered disdain from birds, perhaps because that is where my own sympathies are.
A similar tension exists in computing – a subject which needs both deep technical expertise AND a rich awareness of the breadth of applications to which computing may be put.  This need arises because the history of the subject shows an intricate interplay of theory and applications, led almost always by the application.    Turing’s abstract cineprojector model of computing arrived a century after Babbage’s calculating machines, for example, and we’ve had programmable devices since at least Jacquard’s loom in 1804, yet only had a mathematical theory of programming since the 1960s.  In fact, since computer science is almost entirely a theory of human artefacts (apart from that part – still small – which looks at natural computing), it would be strange indeed were the theory to divorce itself from the artefacts which are its scope of study.
A story which examplifies this division in computing is here.
Freeman Dyson [2009]:  Birds and frogs.  Notices of the American Mathematical Society, 56 (2): 212-223, February 2009.   Available here.

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