Prof. Barbara Liskov recently won the Turing Award, which is widely known as the “Nobel Prize” of computing.
“It was very exciting,” she says of the day she won. “I was standing up when I picked up the phone, but I sat down right away because the news was overwhelming.”
Liskov — the first woman to earn a Ph.D. from a computer science department at a U.S. university — is the second woman ever to receive the Turing Award, which carries a $250,000 prize.
“I’m absolutely delighted,” she says. “I haven’t even thought about how I would spend the money.”
Liskov was honored for her innovations in building the computer system designs that touch our daily lives. Her achievements underlie almost every modern computing convenience. Whenever we send an email, check a bank balance online, or conduct a Google search, we are using programs that sprang from her research.
Liskov developed data abstraction, the underpinnings of object-oriented programming, which is how people today build software. The work she did in the 1970s and 1980s made a huge advance in how people built programs. Specifically, she developed two programming languages, CLU and Argus, which were the basis for languages like Java and C#, which are often used to write software applications for personal computers and the Internet. Her innovations in designing programming languages also have made software more reliable and resistant to errors and hacking.
The Turing Award was named for Alan Turing, a British mathematician who during World War II helped the Allies crack German naval codes.
Liskov, an Institute Professor, the highest honor awarded to a faculty member at MIT, is also an associate provost. She joined the Institute in 1972 and leads the Programming Methodology Group in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
“The (programming) languages people use today are heavily based on CLU, even though the people who are writing the programs may not realize it,” she says. “The world gets more applications that are better designed than they would be in the absence of this work. Mind you, though, this work was waiting to happen. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
KEPT LOW PROFILE
Barbara Liskov was born in Los Angeles and raised in San Francisco, the oldest child of a lawyer and a homemaker. She was great at math and science, but it was the 1950s and it was a field in which few girls excelled.
“I just did it anyway, but I kept a low profile,” she says. “At my high school, I took all the math and science courses that were available. I just didn’t talk about it to my girl friends. In those days, it was really a male-dominated thing.”
Despite her success at math, she thought she might one day need to support herself as a secretary, so her father suggested that she take a typing course, which she did. “He could never have foreseen how extremely useful typing turned out to be, since I use it all the time,” she says, adding that the keyboard is essential to her work.
She went on to earn a degree in mathematics from the University of California, Berkeley, and later earned a Ph.D. from Stanford. In 1968, she landed a job as a researcher at Mitre in Bedford, MA, where she worked for four years before joining MIT. At that time, computers were still huge mainframes, and it was a world without the Internet. “I remember it well,” she says.
Now, reflecting on where this work is headed, she says: “It’s very hard to predict. I certainly didn’t foresee the explosion that began in the 1990s, with computers becoming everywhere in people’s homes, and the Internet so pervasive in everything we do. I have no crystal ball, but there’s just going to be more and more applications — better searching, online storage, and a lot of work in robotics.”
Liskov attributes her success to “a combination of hard work and down time. You’re not going to have good ideas if you aren’t thinking and working intensely,” she says. “But I’m not a compulsive workaholic. I never have been. An awful lot of important work happens when you go home at night and put it aside. Then, the next morning, you often have answers to problems from the day before. It’s useful to have a balanced life.”
It’s not necessary to win the Turing Award to be successful, she adds. “Success is your own value system and getting contentment from what you do. But having the award, makes it very nice.”