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Inventing a Programming Language

By MIT News

November 10, 2009

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Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Barbara Liskov, winner of ACM's 2008 A.M. Turing Award, recently delivered the first lecture of MIT's 2009 Dertouzos Lecture Series. She was introduced as "the Derek Jeter of Computer Science" — a reference to the New York Yankees' star shortstop.

Liskov, who received the Turing Award in part for the work she did in the 1970s establishing the principles for the organization of programming languages, began her talk by describing the environment in which she performed her pioneering work. Liskov explained that in the fall of 1972, after reviewing the literature in the field, she developed the idea for what is known now as abstract data types. After developing that idea, Liskov says she and some collaborators created a programming language, CLU, which put most of her ideas into practice.

The remainder of Liskov's lecture focused on a demonstration that CLU prefigured many of the ideas common in modern programming languages, such as polymorphism, type hierarchy, and exception handling. During a question and answer session, Liskov said the secret to her success was not working that many hours a day, going home at night, and not working in the evening. "I always found that downtime to be really useful," she said. Liskov also stressed the importance of working on interesting research, instead of research that is most likely to get published.

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