COMS 1001 Biography Assignment (HW 4)

Columbia University Introduction to Computers (Spring 2006)


Write a mini-biography about a luminary in the field of computer science. Computer Science is a relatively young field, but it has roots in mathematics, linguistics, philosophy, and physics. There are plenty of people to choose from; several are listed at the end of this document. Everyone will also give a short presentation on the scientist they chose and the major contributions of his or her work. The motivation for this assignment is that Computer Science as a field is young, and all too often forgets its recent history. Many of the people that first participated in the field and its beginnings are now sadly passing, or have passed, and few people have bothered to document the wisdom accumulated by these folks.

Material from primary sources (such as that gathered from live interviews, phone calls, or emails) is a plus. Make sure to ask the subject if they mind being taped if you're doing so. Portraits of contemporary subjects are greatly preferred. I can learn all about Charles Babbage or Alan Turing at the library. It's a bit more difficult to learn about Donald Knuth. One word of caution: remember that the people you're asking to interview are people, not a means to an end for your grade on this assignment: that is, they are probably very busy and have committments in their life that probably outweigh your mini-bio, so remember to be considerate, appropriately humble, and thankful for their time. Since many people would feel uncomfortable answering personal questions for someone they don't know (and who isn't writing a book about them), it is not at all necessary to obtain this sort of source material, but if you can, great. Good candidates for this type of personal contact are professors in our CS department.


The point of this assignment is two-fold. First, it demonstrates your ability to create an HTML (web) page and manipulate HTML content. Second, and more importantly, it gives you to opportunity to examine the work of an individual who had a major impact on the field and gain some insight on a subfield that you are interested in (or never knew existed).

Detailed Instructions:

Write a roughly 5 page (5000 word) essay (not counting bibliography) that chronicles the life of an important figure in Computer Science. Either contemporary or deceased people are fair game. The essay should focus on your understanding of a technical contribution made by the subject of the mini-bio, but should include at least a brief sketch of their career. In general, you should not overlap with a classmate. For this reason, there is a list of reserved subjects at the end of this document. Reserving a subject on this list is stricly FCFS (first-come-first-served) policy. Send me email to reserve a subject.

Your grade will be based on the following deliverables, the first three of which must be submitted as an HTML document with appropriate and simple formatting (including formatting of any mathematical equations)

  1. a sketch of the person's career (25 pts)
  2. a demonstration of your understanding of the subject's technical work or contribution you focus on. You don't need to summarize their whole career: pick one particular project or accomplishment. (50 pts)
  3. the quality of your writing, including grammar (25 pts)
  4. an oral presentation of your research to the class (30 pts)
The attentive reader will see that this adds up to more than 100 points. The points for the presentation will come from an informal presentation and be counted towards your class participation.

The important thing here is not the length, but rather the quality of the content and your writing. I encourage non-standard ways of story-telling: an annotated transcript of your person-on-person interview with the subject is a great example. Another good technique is to examine a particular incident, problem, or technology that the person dealt with or contributed to. I do not want a book report. Let me repeat that: I don't want a book report. The drier and duller the essay, the less it will impress when it comes time to grade it. Above all, show me that you learned and explored something interesting. If your initial choice isn't interesting, then pick someone else. If you feel a connection with one of the suggested subjects because you both share a passion for photographing birds, use it as a way to enlighten the rest of us.


Reserved List

Subject of Biography Student
Michael E. Locasto mel2008
Bill Gates Michael Neuman (mpn2104)
Robert E. Kahn Ross Karpman (rsk2117)
Steve Jobs Dominic Hackley (dnh2103)
Al Aho Sarah Ekeberg (see2005)
Ada Lovelace Kawtar Doukkali (kd2101)
Igor Aleksander Stephen Kunen (smk2020)
Alan Turing Julia Rabinovich (jmr2015)
Vanessa Cobian (vec2004)
Divya Rajasekaran (dr2095)
Tommy Flowers Ansel Lurio (awl2011)
John Vincent Atanasoff Tsvyatko Dorovski (td2177)
Edsger Dijkstra Shoshana Diggs (sd2096)
Warner Slack Sarah Collins (sac2125)
Vint Cerf Radhika Kapoor (rk2161)
Steve Wozniak Sara Colón (sc2163)
Lawrence J. Ellison Bjrn Briese (bb2208)
Konrad Zuse Hye Park (hp2171)
"DVD" Jon Lech Johansen Jim Davis (jmd2101)
Boris A. Babaian Kieran Ryan (kmr2023)
Bjarne Stroustrup John Krawiec (jak2031)

© 2006 Michael E. Locasto

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