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Celebrating 25 years of celebrating computation

Brian Hayes

This column marks an anniversary: It has been 25 years since I began writing these essays on the pleasures and possibilities of computation. My first columns appeared in Scientific American ; later I wrote for Computer Language and then The Sciences ; since 1993 the column has been happily at home here in American Scientist . (Some of my earlier essays are newly available online at .)

For my very first column, in October of 1983, I chose as an epigraph some words of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz: "Let us calculate!" In Leibniz's Latin this exhortation was actually just one word: "Calculemus!" Leibniz was an optimist—he was the model of Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss—and he saw a bright future for what we would now call algorithmic thinking. Calculation would be the key to settling all human conflicts and disagreements, he believed. I can't quite match Leibniz's faith in attaining world peace through computation, but in my own way I'm an algorithmic optimist too. I see computing as an important tool for helping us understand the world we live in and enriching our experience of life.

When I wrote that first column, the idea of a personal computer was still a novelty, and there was some question what it might be good for. Now the computer is a fixture of daily life. We rely on it to read the news, to keep in touch with friends, to listen to music and watch movies, to pay bills, to play games, and occasionally to get a bit of work done. Oddly enough, though, one thing we seldom do with the computer is compute. Only a minority of computer users ever sit down to write a program as a step in solving a problem or answering a question. In this column I want to celebrate the rewards of programming and computing, and cheer on those who get their kicks out of this peculiar sport. I also have a few words to say about the evolution of tools for programming.

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