Thursday 28 July 2016

Who is Sophie Wilson?

Who is Sophie Wilson? 

Well, ideally, she should be better known than (or at least as well known as) Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. But let’s come back to her later.

Last year, in July 2015, with my brother Jayaraman, I visited the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Mountain View is one of several towns in the Silicon Valley, and is home to Google.  I had lived for a year in Cupertino, another town in Silicon Valley, and home to Apple. In 2000, I used to live in an apartment complex diagonally across Apple’s Cupertino Headquarters, with only the 280 Highway from San Francisco to San Jose in between, but I moved to India in September 2000. At that time, I worked for a San Jose startup called

I didn’t have any friends working in Apple, so I never got to visit their campus.  But when we visited the Computer History Museum (I’ll call it CHM, for short) in 2015, we were given a wonderful tour by a “docent”. Several tours in several interesting places in the US are now guided by docents, and this one was particularly memorable.  Our docent at the CHM was Paul Laughton, who was part of a team that wrote an Disk Operating System (DOS) for Apple for its earliest personal computers. I had a hard time believing that such a person would be a docent at a Museum, but we were quite lucky to have someone like that show us around. Laughton’s love for computers and pride in his contributions to the industry were obvious.
Paul Laughton and me at Computer History Museum
DOS and Personal Computers (PCs) are words more familiarly associated with Microsoft than Apple, because in the 1980s, Microsoft became the giant of the software industry, while Apple remained a small company. But Apple invented the personal computer.

“Do you know who invented the PC?” asked Laughton of our crowd.

“Bill Gates,” said someone.


“Steve Jobs,” said someone else.

“Close,” said Laughton. “Actually it was Steve Wozniak who built the first personal computer. Jobs and Wozniak teamed up to start Apple.” 

Most engineers, especially computer engineers, know that Wozniak built it, but most of the general public believes that Steve Jobs built it. What Jobs built was the Apple company itself.  Most people today also only know of personal computers or laptops as computers, but computers had a few decades of history before Jobs and Gates started their companies. The Museum not only showcases the development of computers but even their precursors: devices like the Hollerith punched cards, the Jacquard loom, differential engines, operational amplifiers, vacuum tubes; and pre-industrial age calculating devices like the Chinese abacus, Pascal adders, Napier’s bones and the engineer’s favorite : slide rules. Laughton had walked through these for us. And hands on exhibits like silicon wafers, and an experimental model of Google's self driving Google car.

Silicon Wafer
Jayaram in a model of the experimental self-driving Google car

I studied Computer science and Engineering in Srivilliputhur, India and later at Texas A&M University, USA, and worked in the software industry and I was quite familiar with early history of  electronic computers, from the 1940s onward, but the Museum is marvelous for those who don’t know this history. Their collection of hardware exhibits is excellent, probably unparalleled. In contrast, the almost total lack of information about software, is quite shocking. And puzzling. But they have honored a number of software pioneers including John Backus, Dan Bricklin, John McCarthy, Ken Thompson, Niklaus Wirth and Linus Torvalds. When I visited my alma mater Texas A&M University, about two weeks after the CHM visit, I was delighted to see photos of several computer pioneers adorning the halls of its Computer Science department.

Laughton talked about the evolution of computers from the Hollerith punch card calculators to ENIAC, the first electronic computer built at University of Pennsylvania using vacuum tubes, to the early computer companies like Univac and IBM which made mainframes and later Digital which made mini computers, before coming to Silicon Valley and Apple. I’ll write separately about the evolution of computers and how they are displayed in the Computer History Museum.

Laughton finished by showing us a photo of Sophie Wilson. No one recognized her. Sadly, I hadn’t even heard of her.  Have you?

An accidental theme of this blog, is people who accomplished extraordinary things, but are, ridiculously, not as famous as they should be. The Ajivakas and Alfred Russel Wallace of my blog title fit that theme, as do Mayan mathematics and Haber & Bosch, who were the subject of my first two essays.

Sophie Wilson, announced Laughton, wrote software that runs in more computers than software written by anyone else in the world. There are roughly 30 billion processors that run Sophie Wilson’s software. Cellphones  made by Apple, Samsung, Nokia, HTC and Sony Ericsson, that number seems quite believable. Add other devices like iPods, iPads, game consoles by Nintendo and Sony, GPS navigation devices, digital cameras and televisions, all of which use ARM’s processors, I wonder if it is an underestimate. Note that the Earth’s human population is only about 7 billion, of which perhaps 5 billion people use such electronic devices, so each of them, on average, uses  six ARM processors. And she’s practically unknown, though the British Royal Society elected her a Fellow, and so did the CHM. Among more famous Fellows of the Royal Society are Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Wallace is one of the less famous ones.
Sophie Wilson
ARM processors differ from the more famous computer processors like Intel’s Pentium or Motorola’s 68000 series and almost all PC processors, in that the latter use CISC architecture, while ARM uses RISC. The advent of mobile phones and such portable devices vastly increased the market for ARM’s processors which use far less power and more compactly designed.  ARM is also not as famous as Google, Samsung, Microsoft, Intel etc.(except perhaps to investors). Just like Sophie Wilson. And Wilson’s fellow ARM developer, Steve Furber.

Translating Avvaiyaar, who said கற்றது கை மண் அளவு. கல்லாதது உலகளவு kaRRathu kai maN aLavu, kallaadadu ulagaLavu” : All we know is a handful of sand. Our ignorance is as big as the earth. Only two days earlier, I had stumbled upon photo of a SQL Server 6.0 box, which had my autograph as one of the team members, on a Microsoft website, and was feeling a tad nostalgic. This was humbling.

About Sophie Wilson 
  1. Wikipedia
  2. Fellow of Royal Society
  3. The wide use of ARM chips

Paul Laughton and Apple DOS

SideScript (not quite Postscript): I am curious whether one day software will also be considered literature and studied as such. I asked this on Facebook once, but the responses went in a different direction than I hoped. Most people who write software, haven’t really seen the source code of the great and marvelous software that people use, or that historically made the industry possible. Computer languages rival human languages in number and mystifying notation, and all 20th century computer languages may be obsolete in a few years. But they may be of some interest, to historians and linguists, if not the public. Laughton’s assembly code for Apple DOS is listed on CHM’s website. It’s a start.

Science Yatra

Some Ajivaka Wallacians
  1. Fred Sanger
  2. Dorothy Hodgkin (in Tamil டோரோதி ஹாட்ஜ்கின்)
  3. Lynn Margulis
  4. GN Lewis
  5. Emile Levassor (in Tamil)
  6. Nilakantha Somasatvan
  7. Francis Whyte Ellis
  8. Charles Parsons
  9. John Ambrose Fleming
  10. Indian Astronomers and Mathematicians
  11. Walter Brattain (in Tamil சிலிகான் சிற்பி - வால்டர்  பிராட்டன்)
SQL Server 6.0 software box
My autograph is on right lower corner, sideways

Monday 18 July 2016

Science Yatra to the USA

Around this day last year, July 16, 2015, I visited the United States after a fifteen year hiatus. I lived, studied, and worked in the US between 1991 and 2000, when I returned to India , hoping to embark on a writing career, which never took off – I don’t think I have the discipline to be a writer. In 2000, I thought that what I wanted out of life was a career in a different field for every decade of my life. Now I realize that I need not have conceptually compartmentalized my life by decades. I can be interested in multiple things concurrently, though perhaps I cant really have a career in any of them.

Since I quit my software career, I have been mostly reading books, on a variety of subjects. Three subjects which I found boring in my teens and twenties, Art, Biology and Economics, have captured my attention in the last ten years or so. In the last couple of years, especially after reading Thomas Hager’s excellent book, The Alchemy of Air, on the Haber Bosch process, I have been fascinated by Chemistry and its modern history – and how poorly this history is explained to us or discussed in public fora.

But in the last few years, I have had a chance to travel to some parts of India, mostly visiting temples, more for their art, sculputre and painting, than for spiritual or religious pursuit. Occasionally, in India, I have visited places that provoke scientific curiosity or are famous for a scientist / mathematician, like :

·         the Calcutta Botanical Gardens
·         the Trivandrum Museum which has a marvelous Biology exhibit, especially, a superb Invertebrates section
·         Ramanujan museum in Royapuram, Madras
·         Ramanujan house in Kumbakonam
·         Vishveshvarayya Museum, Bangalore
·         Gass Forest Museum, Coimbatore, which has a fantastic butterfly collection
·         Gunduperumbedu fossil site, near Sriperumbudur, TN
·         Tiruvakkarai fossil site, near Vilupuram, TN

Unfortunately, except for the fossil sites, almost everything related to science in India, is of the British period or later. I would have loved to visit an Aryabhata museum in Bihar, a Varahamihira museum in Ujjain or a Brahmagupta musuem in Rajasthan – or even their birthplaces. We have no such thing; there are even scholarly disputes over where they were born or which city they lived in.

Anyway, ever since I read books like Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, Alfred Russel Wallace’s Contributions to the Theory of natural selection, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and perused portions of Henry Bates’ Naturalist on the River Amazons, Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of a New Continent, and most influentially, Iain McCalman’s book Darwin’s Armada, I developed the urge to travel the world, and see its scientific treasures, not just its artistic wonders or other monuments, mostly political. My innate laziness, ridiculous visa hassles, extreme fussiness and wariness over food, and lack of like-minded travel companions have held me back from doing indulging. I’ve wanted to visit Europe, especially Germany, Greece and Italy for the last three years. Similarly Brazil, Mexico, China, Japan, and of course, in the footsteps of Wallace to the islands of Indonesia. I’m even quite tempted to visit Baghdad, scientific centre of the 8th and 9th centuries, though it’s perhaps not suitable now. And Khwarizem, home of two all times greats, Muhammad bin Musa al Khwarizmi and Muhammad bin Ahmad al Biruni.

Considering all this, it was simply easier to visit the US. I already had a visa, and I could see friends and family there. Also food is not a problem in the USA, and I was looking forward to various cuisines I became accustomed to in the years when I lived there. I had a multi-city tour planned, which didn’t work out, because I had some problem renting a car, but it turned out to be good luck, because this way I spent less time traveling between cities and more time visiting actual places of interest. Everywhere I went, except LA, I ended up staying with family.

These are the places of scientific interest which I visited in the US

·         July 24 - Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
·         July 25 - Botanical Garden in the Golden Gate Park
·         July 27 - Stanford University campus tour, Palo Alto
·         July 28 - Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California
·         Aug 1 - Atlanta Botanical Garden
·         Aug 6 - Natural History Museum, Washington DC
·         Aug 7 - Aviation and Space Museum, Washington DC
·         Aug 9 - Benjamin Franklin Museum, Philadelphia
·         Aug 10 - American History Museum (Edison exhibit), Washington DC
·         Aug 13 - Norman Borlaug Center, College Station, Texas

I started the visit with a tour of popular tourist spots in southern California – Seaworld in San Diego and Disneyland and Universal Studios in Los Angeles. The tour of the Library of Congress, especially its paintings and statues turned out to be as substantially about a vision of Science, as of books in general. I got a lot of advice from various people on places to visit, but I haven’t written about most of the places I visited, yet, except San Francisco Botanical Garden and the first Google computer at Stanford. And Facebook has started to toss up memories from last year. I will write about some of these in the next couple of months. I regret not going again this summer; I should have planned visits to Chitchen Itza and Tenochtitlan and of course, the Burgess Shale, in Canada.

If you have undertaken a Science Yatra of some sort, please let me know. I’d love to read about it, and perhaps visit the sites.

US Science Yatra Essays

ஞானதேவதைகள்The paintings in the Library of Congress (in Tamil)

India Science Yatra Essays

Midnight Sun in Sriharikota – An Indian Rocket launch
சொர்கத்தின் பறவைகள் Indonesian Birds of Paradise My Book review (in Tamil) of Darwin's Armada 
Video of my lecture on Astronomy of Ancient Cultures

Tuesday 12 July 2016

கின்லீ போற்றுதும் கின்லீ போற்றுதும்

கின்லீ போற்றுதும் கின்லீ போற்றுதும்
வான்மழை பொய்ப்பினும் கோன்நெறி வழுக்கினும்
சான்றோர் ஆன்றோர் இருப்பினும் இலாவினும்
காவிரி வைகை மணல்கிடங்காயினும்
கங்கை யமுனை மலக்கிடங்காயினும்
மாளிகை என்றோ மண்குடில் என்றோ
வாள்வலியார்க்கும் தோள்வலியார்க்கும்
நூல்வழியார்க்கும் வழியல்லார்க்கும்
வேற்றுமை பாராது விலைப்பொருளாக
போற்றர்க்குரிய நீர் வழங்கும்மே
கின்லீ போற்றுதும் கின்லீ போற்றுதும்

அக்குவாபினா போற்றுதும் அக்குவாபினா போற்றுதும்
பக்குவமான தெள்ளிய நீரை
கிணறு வற்றினும் குளங்கள் வற்றினும்
கட்சி கொள்கை குல மதம் பாராது
குணம் நாடாது குற்றமும் நாடாது
பணம் நாடி பணமொன்றே நாடி
உத்தரவின்றி தொந்தொறவின்றி
பத்திரமான சுத்தமும் சுவையும்
யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளிரென
வாதும் சூதும் வழி தடுக்காமல்
தக்கார் தகவிலர் சமமாய் நீர்தரும்
அக்குவாபினா போற்றுதும் அக்குவாபினா போற்றுதும்

மாமழை போற்றுதும் மாமழை போற்றுதும்
மாமழை காரண ஞாயிறு போற்றுதும்
மாமழை பெய்திடும் மாநில மிகைதனை
மாபெரும் மோட்டாரால் நதிநீள குழாய்களால்
வரட்சியில் வாடும் பற்பல ஊரெலாம்
அருட்செய் மழைபோல் அள்ளி வழங்கிடும்
அரசுகள் போற்றுதும் அலுவலர் போற்றுதும்

கம்பெனி போற்றுதும் கம்பெனி போற்றுதும்
முன்பொரு பிஸ்லெரி பின்பொரு கிங்ஃபிஷர்
என்பவை போன்ற பற்பல பெயருடன்
அங்குமிங்கும் பட்டறை அமைத்து
தங்கு தடையின்றி இல்லந்தோரும்
நாளொரு போத்தலும் பொழுதொரு குடமும்
நாடு முழுவதும் ஓடோடி விற்கும்
கம்பெனி போற்றுதும் கம்பெனி போற்றுதும்

கிளை நதிகள்
உலக பொருளாதார வரலாறு - நூல் விமர்சனம்