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🔗 Programming language research is a Human Science

Some people often tell me that, due to my various interests, they actually find it weird that I ended up studying Computer Science and not some of the Humanities. I try to explain them that my specific field of interest, programming languages, is actually a Human Science. And that is so for one simple reason: if there was no people, if computing was restricted to computers and there was no human factor, machine language — the binary code that processors actually run — would be enough. Programming languages exist because of people, not because of computers.

This quote puts it rather nicely:

“Programming is a science dressed up as art, because most of us don’t understand the physics of software, and it’s rarely if ever taught. The physics of software is not algorithms, data structures, languages and abstractions. These are just tools we make, use, throw away. The real physics of software is the physics of people.

Specifically, our limitations when it comes to complexity, and our desire to work together to solve large problems in pieces. This is the science of programming: make building blocks that people can understand and use easily, and people will work together to solve the very largest problems.” — Peter Hintjens et al., ØMQ - The Guide

Programming languages are the bridge we use to communicate our ideas to the machine, but also to communicate our ideas among our fellow programmers, and even to ourselves. Like natural languages, programming languages are constantly evolving (at a much faster pace, even!), as we try to balance the tension between being precise and unambiguous and being understandable and eloquent; to be able, in the same piece of prose, to tell a machine what to do and to tell another person what we mean. And this is by no means a matter of numbers.


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