Look to the Heavens: a Parable

“Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.”
— Edsger Dijkstra (possibly misattributed)

When I was young, I enjoyed looking at the stars. I remember tilting my head upward and seeing the universe unfold before me, untold wonders, billions of brilliant points of light. I would lie for hours on my back, letting the stars crawl across the sky, lost in the beauty of the world beyond me.

Later I would learn astrophysics, and study the fusion reactions in our sun, the main sequence, and life cycle of the stars. I was fascinated by how the first stars had fused hydrogen in to heavier elements and then exploded, propelling carbon and oxygen across the vast expanse to become part of planet earth. They left majestic dust clouds in their wake, reflecting the light of a thousand thousand solar furnaces. This light travelled across space and time, quantities that I could measure and calculate. My study of the stars served only to augment my wonder.

Slowly, at first, others began to take interest in my passion. They were enthralled by telescopes, which let them see the stars with increasing clarity and precision. My field was crowded with ever more telescopes and their advocates. Soon, an arms race began. Where once we had to manually position telescopes with sights and paper charts, new models were motorized and at the touch of a button would move themselves to view any star desired. Now even these are passé. The reigning champion is a device with a screen that, as it is moved in space, displays the stars on the other side overlaid with their names and constellations. The very act of using this device, however, obscures the stars themselves.

Astronomy became ever more popular. One January, an upstart startup declared it was Astro Year, and that everybody should learn how to operate a telescope. Everyone was claiming to have the Next Big Telescope that would simplify our lives. Startups promised telescope boot camps, bypassing the time and cost of a traditional college education. “Do you know that job openings for astronomers outnumber applicants 2.3 to one?” I was asked. I shrugged. I wouldn’t turn down a job, but that wasn’t the reason I was here. All I wanted to do was look up at the stars.

* * *

You walk into a small domed building on a mysterious island. There is a plush red chair in the middle of the room, reclined like one found in a dentist’s office. You sit down, and notice a black box overhead, within reach. There are sliders and a small screen that is dark. You move the sliders but nothing happens. You get up to leave, but you notice a light switch next to the door. You flip it, and the room darkens. On a hunch you lie back in the chair and begin to move the sliders. The screen comes to life with star patterns and a date. Moving the sliders, you are able to see a patch of sky for every night for several years.

The above is a scene from Myst, the 1993 exploration/puzzle video game. Today, it seems awfully quaint, to dedicate an entire building to a single-purpose computer. Indeed, the handheld planetarium described above is a free iPhone app. But there was a certain allure, a certain prominence of rarity, that once characterized both stargazing and computing. Now both have been cheapened by our ubiquitous devices, and the influx of uninspired practitioners. Once, before my time, we had to fight for time on a mainframe; now anyone can learn to code.

Yes, anyone can code, in the same way that anyone can operate a telescope. But can you look up at the stars and wonder? Can you explain the stars themselves, apart from the feeble and transient machines we use to view them? Do recursive algorithms and finite state machines keep you up at night, or only wake you in the morning? We don’t need more coders and we certainly don’t need more code. We need more computer scientists, who look look up to the stars, rather than down on their machines.

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