Like many other universities in the late sixties, MIT was a hotbed of political activism. Rising tensions around the Vietnam War, coupled with controversial Defense Department research, culminated in hundreds of students occupying MIT’s Office of the President in January 1970. While that historic moment led to MIT’s eventual divestment from weapons research, it played an equally pivotal role in the career of a young, underpaid mathematics student named Harold Abelson: “I was a new graduate student, and figured that I’m never going to get a chance to go sit in the president’s office, so I wandered over, and there were a whole bunch of people from the Students for a Democratic Society sitting around on the floor. One of them was somebody who I’d gone to high school with. When I told him that I was looking for a job, he suggested the Artificial Intelligence Lab.”
It would be hard to invent a more apt setting for the start of Professor Hal Abelson’s career in computer science. That one random bit of advice, delivered from the epicenter of a student occupation, not only anchored Abelson’s future in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab—it offers a fitting (if serendipitous) backdrop for his longstanding engagement with some the most important issues at the crossroads of computing and society.
Abelson first picked up programming as a high school student during a summer job at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station. He coded in FORTRAN on an IBM 709 computer that ran on paper punch cards. As a mathematics undergrad at Princeton he continued to dabble in programming—jockeying with astrophysicists for valuable time on the mainframe—but ended up taking just one computer science course. It was only while earning his Ph.D. in Algebraic Topology from MIT that he began to seriously study computer science, using applied mathematics to explore new ways of modeling distributed computing. He fell in with a variety of early computing initiatives at MIT, which eventually led to a teaching appointment in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science department.
Today, Abelson’s teaching career is legendary. Together with Gerald Sussmann, he created Course 6.001, which would introduce several generations of MIT graduates to computer science and become the gold standard for its instruction. For the almost thirty years since its publication, the course’s accompanying textbook, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs has been tens of thousands of students’ initiation into what Abelson earnestly calls the “magic” of programming. Read more.