Friday, June 28, 2019

The Innovators

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, by Walter Isaacson, superimposed on Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.
The Innovators: How a Group
of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks
Created the Digital Revolution
by Walter Isaacson.
Computers play a large and growing role in biomedical research. Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology contains four computer programs that illustrate the computations behind topics such as the Hodgkin-Huxley model and computed tomography. To learn more about the history of computers, I read The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, by Walter Isaacson. The introduction begins
The computer and the Internet are among the most important inventions of our era, but few people know who created them. They were not conjured up in a garret or garage by solo inventors suitable to be singled out on magazine covers or put into a pantheon with Edison, Bell, and Morse. Instead, most of the innovations of the digital age were done collaboratively. There were a lot of fascinating people involved, some ingenious and a few even geniuses. This is the story of these pioneers, hackers, inventors, and entrepreneurs—who they were, how their minds worked, and what made them so creative. It’s also a narrative of how they collaborated and why their ability to work as teams made them even more creative.
Mr. Ray Dennis, my FORTRAN teacher at Shawnee Mission South High School.
Mr. Ray Dennis,
my FORTRAN teacher at
Shawnee Mission South High School.
From the 1977-1978 school yearbook.
Transistors, microchips and computers were invented before I was born, but I witnessed the rise of personal computers and the creation of the Internet in the 70s, 80s. and 90s. My first experience with computers was during my senior year of high school (1978), when I took a programming class based on the computer language FORTRAN. It was the most useful class I ever took; I programmed in FORTRAN almost every day for decades. At that time, many computers used punch cards to input programs. I remember typing up a stack of cards during class and giving them to my teacher, Ray Dennis, who ran them on an off-site computer after school. The next day he would return our cards along with our output on folded, perforated paper. Mistype one comma and you lost a day. I learned to program with care.

The next year I attended the University of Kansas, where they were phasing out punch cards and replacing them with time-sharing terminals. I thought it was the greatest advance ever. During my freshmen year, my roommate was an engineering graduate student from California who owned an Apple II, and he let me use it to play a primitive Star Trek video game. The Physics Department purchased a Vax mainframe computer that I used for undergraduate research analyzing light scattering data.

At Vanderbilt, my advisor John Wikswo made sure each of his graduate students had their own computer (an IBM clone), which I thought was amazing. I also got my first email account. During my grad school years I followed the rivalry between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. After starting as a PC guy,  I moved to the National Institutes of Health in 1988 and switched over to an Apple Macintosh, and have been a loyal Mac man ever since. I remember going to a lecture at NIH about something called the World Wide Web, and thinking that it sounded silly. Since then, I’ve seen the rise of Yahoo!, Google, and Wikipedia, and I write these posts ever week using blogger. All these developments and more are described in The Innovators

I’m a fan of Walter Isaacson. He’s written several “genius biographies (Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin), but my favorite of his books is The Wise Men, the story of six influential leaders—Averell Harriman, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, Robert Lovett, John McCloy, and Charles Bohlen—during the cold war. The Innovators reminds me of The Wise Men in that it focuses on the interactions among a group, rather than the contributions of an individual.

For readers of IPMB who use computers for biomedical research, I recommend The Innovators. It provides insight into how the digital world was invented, and the role of collaboration in science and technology. Enjoy!

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