July 30th, 2015
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Real rocket science” took place almost 50 years ago, with the Apollo moon landing. The Apollo missions set the speed record for humans at roughly 40,000 km/hour. But after that, the rocket science advances started to slow down. From 1685 on, the number of scientific papers published doubled every fifteen years—he likened it to Moore’s Law—but that leveled off in the 1970s.
Who was doing this rocket science, he asked; who was programming these rockets and spacecraft to land on the moon? He put up a slide of Margaret Hamilton with a stack of printouts as tall as she that was the source code for the Apollo program. She led the programming effort for the project.
In the 1960s, more women than men were programmers. That changed because more money flowed into the computer industry, which attracted more men. Research has shown that as fields attract more money, men tend to dominate. In the early days, programming was seen as a “lowly” task that involved typing so it didn’t seem particularly important. Hamilton was one of the leading rocket scientists.
He then showed a picture of an old rotary-dialed phone. In 1939, those types of phones started using “pulse dialing”, where each digit of the phone number actually controlled relays across the country to switch the wire to connect to the phone at the other end. That was all run by one company (e.g. AT&T in the US), which controlled all of the hardware (phones, relays, network) to make it run reliably.
In 1974, another “rocket science invention” came about using modems that allowed creating an overlay network on top of the voice network. Many researchers believed it was the wrong approach, though, because it could not be any more effective than the underlying network. So they came up with the idea of a packet-switched network where each packet gets a “higher-level telephone number” (the IP address) for its destination.
That idea had a big advantage that was not obvious at the time: there are no setup costs, unlike with phone calls. You can just put a packet on the wire and the router will make a decision about how to forward it toward its destination. It was envisioned as a distributed network and one that was resilient in the face of failures—packets can be rerouted around them. It turned out that decentralization “was a bit of a hippie dream”, he said.
…This and other examples contradict the idea that we are innovating exponentially and making huge technical advances—doing rocket science, essentially. Progress is being made in specific areas, we have more and more ways to scale up to million-to-one architectures, for example, but it tends to be focused on monetization, rather than on basic research for things like the space program.