Guest Column:Chemical Eye on a Translating Father


Necessity is the mother of invention. But, I think this mainly applies to unplanned pregnancies. On numerous historic occasions, the mother of expected inventions is creative laziness.

Consider, for example, the confession of John W. Backus, the father of the FORTRAN computer language, who just recently died after a long, productive career with IBM. In a retrospective article, referring to Cold War defense contract research in the 1950s, Backus said “Much of my own work has come from being lazy. I didn’t like writing programs, and so, when I was working on the IBM 701, writing programs for computing missile trajectories, I started work on a programming system to make it easier to write programs.”

FORTRAN is a concatenation of “formula” and “translating system,” and it quickly became the lingua franca for all scientists who desired to accelerate their research from the speed of fingers flying across a comptometer keypad to the speed of electrons whizzing through vacuum tubes (or silicon chips after the retirement of IBM’s 700 series of computers).

You can’t actually see electrons whizzing in computer chips, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that we can’t even calculate their trajectories, but they get things done very quickly.

Professional comptometer operators were fast too, and in documentaries that I’ve seen their fingers are a blur. But when I joined my first computational research group in the early ‘80s, they were gone with the vacuum tubes. They still lingered in the stories told by old-timers, so I felt a sense of comforting nostalgia when I met one who had been removed from office when managers voted to bring in the new IBM machines.

She became a taxi driver, and I was her chatty fare for a short while. She was a lovely lady — very grandmotherly — but I was fascinated by her accounts of the kinds of calculations that she had been involved in during her career. She told of professors who came in, admitted that mistakes were made in the manipulation of the equations, and a roomful of operators would have to redo a day’s worth of hand-computing. They were unionized, so they got paid for right, wrong, or no answers. Even so, the tone of her voice belied a lingering sense of frustration.

While I enjoyed imagining the past in her presence, I suspect that she had a feeling of taking the future for a ride. I don’t doubt that when she and her co-workers were forced into retirement, they were told of the promise that computers held for revolutionizing scientific research. Then, years later, into her taxi hops this young, red-headed kid talking excitedly about the new Perkin-Elmer 3230 that he has been programming to do calculations aimed at predicting and understanding the shapes and reactivities of molecules — without the need to clean any glassware.

Young iPod-toting kids today wouldn’t be too impressed by a refrigerator-sized computer that only has 16 megabytes of memory (enough for only four songs!) and a disk drive the size of a dishwasher that held another 80 megabytes, but only if the air conditioner was working. She, on the other hand, was amazed by those very same specs. Even with her hands on the wheel, she could roughly translate our barely megahertz clock speed into numbers of shifts. I paid the fare, but couldn’t thank her enough for the ride.

Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University who has relatives living in La Cañada Flintridge. His “Chemical Eye” commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Murfreesboro/Nashville NPR station WMOT (