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COMPUTING SCIENCE

CAFEBABE

Brian Hayes

Babeling On

Talk of a universal language inevitably brings to mind that unfortunate incident of the tower. We tend to read the Babel story as a myth about hubris: The tower builders were out of their depth in trying to erect a structure as high as the heavens; they had undertaken a project beyond their abilities. But the wording of Genesis chapter 11 allows a different interpretation: "And Yahweh said, 'If this is how they have started to act, while they are one people with a single language for all, then nothing that they may presume to do will be out of their reach. Let me, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s talk.'" In other words, the problem was not that the architects were incapable of raising such a tower; on the contrary, they had to be stopped precisely because they would have succeeded, and then doubtless gone on to even greater glories. Thus the story seems to be about the hidden dangers of good engineering practice. I'm not sure what that portends for the future of Java.

© Brian Hayes








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