Saturday, September 15, 2007

So You Want To Be A Computer Scientist?

As professional IT people we are constantly being called upon to innovate. Unfortunately, at most places where I have worked over the past 32 years, that has meant innovating using conventional ideas – a truly difficult thing to do. I know that softwarephysics can be a bit daunting, especially as presented in SoftwarePhysics 101 – The Physics of Cyberspacetime, because the course is designed for several audiences – IT people, physicists, and biologists, and none of these folks talk to each other much. So I would like to break down softwarephysics into some smaller chunks that might be easier to absorb from an IT perspective. I work with a large number of my fellow IT people on a daily basis, and I frequently hear that “Why is this happening to me?” sound in their voices at 3:00 AM. This might help.

Let’s begin where it all started in the spring of 1941 when Konrad Zuse built the Z3 with 2400 electromechanical telephone relays. The Z3 was the world’s first full-fledged computer. You don’t hear much about Konrad Zuse because he was working in Germany during World War II. The Z3 had a clock speed of 5.33 Hz and could multiply two very large numbers together in 3 seconds. It used a 22 bit word and had a total memory of 64 words. It only had two registers, but it could read in and store programs via a punched tape. In 1945, while Berlin was being bombed by over 800 bombers each day, Zuse worked on the Z4 and developed Plankalkuel, the first high-level computer language more than 10 years before the appearance of FORTRAN in 1956. Zuse was able to write the world’s first chess program with Plankalkuel. And in 1950 his startup company Zuse-Ingenieurb├╝ro Hopferau began to sell the world’s first commercial computer, the Z4, 10 months before the sale of the first UNIVAC.

Figure 1 – Konrad Zuse with a reconstructed Z3 in 1961 (click to enlarge)

Figure 2 – Block diagram of the Z3 architecture (click to enlarge)

Now in the past 66 years hardware has improved by a factor of about a billion. You can now go to Best Buy with $500 bucks and buy a machine that is approximately a billion times faster than the Z3 with nearly a billion times as much memory. So how much progress have we made on the software side of computer science in this same period of time? How far have we come since Plankalkuel? Now be careful! A billion seconds is 32 years, and I know that some of you have not quite reached that milestone yet. I would estimate that at most we are perhaps 100 – 1,000 times better off at creating, maintaining, and operating software than Zuse was with writing Plankalkuel on punched tape. And I think I am being generous here. So although we have made great strides in software, how come the hardware guys beat us out by a factor of between 1 – 10 million over the past 60 some years? My suggestion is that this was not a fair fight because the hardware guys were cheating - they were using science! Yes, softwarephysics makes the outrageous suggestion that computer scientists try using science! This has already started to happen in academic computer science with the Biologically Inspired Computing community spread across many universities, but it has not yet filtered down much to the commercial IT community.

Next time I would like to discuss why in the world would you possibly want to apply science to computer science? People working on steam engines in the 18th century asked this very same question.

So what happened to Konrad Zuse? Zuse died in 1995 after making many contributions to computing that you use in your job on a daily basis. You can read about his adventures in computing in his own words at:

Being the unsung genius that he was, Zuse published Calculating Space in 1967, in which he proposed that the physical Universe was a giant computer! This crazy idea has recently been adopted and expanded upon by such huge intellects as physicists John Wheeler, Seth Lloyd, David Deutsch and many others now working on quantum computers. In 1687, Newton published his Principia in which he presented the world with Newtonian mechanics. The Newtonian clockwork model of the Universe, which depicted the world as a huge machine relentlessly moving in deterministic paths, dominated Western thought throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. But the rise of quantum mechanics and chaos theory in the 20th century has recently caused many physicists and philosophers to adopt a new model of the Universe which depicts the Universe as a huge quantum computer constantly calculating how to behave.

Comments are welcome at

To see all posts on softwarephysics in reverse order go to:

Steve Johnston

1 comment:

Jessica said...