Abelson in 2007
|Fields||computer science, ethics, law, methodology, amorphous computing|
|Institutions||Massachusetts Institute of Technology|
|Known for||Creative Commons, Public Knowledge, Free Software Foundation, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs|
Award (MIT School of Engineering, 1992)
Taylor L. Booth Education Award (IEEE, 1995)
Harold (Hal) Abelson is the Class of 1922 Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, a fellow of the IEEE, and is a founding director, both of Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation.
Abelson holds an A.B. degree from Princeton University and a Ph.D. degree in mathematics from MIT. In 1992, Abelson was designated as one of MIT's six inaugural MacVicar Faculty Fellows, in recognition of his significant and sustained contributions to teaching and undergraduate education. Abelson was recipient in 1992 of the Bose Award (MIT's School of Engineering teaching award). Abelson is also the winner of the 1995 Taylor L. Booth Education Award given by IEEE Computer Society, cited for his continued contributions to the pedagogy and teaching of introductory computer science.
Abelson has a longstanding interest in using computation as a conceptual framework in teaching. He directed the first implementation of LOGO for the Apple II, which made the language widely available on personal computers beginning in 1981; and published a widely selling book on LOGO in 1982. His book Turtle Geometry, written with Andrea diSessa in 1981, presented a computational approach to geometry which has been cited as "the first step in a revolutionary change in the entire teaching/learning process."
Together with Gerald Jay Sussman, Abelson developed MIT's introductory computer science subject, Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, a subject organized around the notion that a computer language is primarily a formal medium for expressing ideas about methodology, rather than just a way to get a computer to perform operations. This work, through Abelson and Sussman's popular eponymous computer science textbook, videotapes of their lectures, and the availability on personal computers of the Scheme dialect of Lisp (used in teaching the course), has had a worldwide impact on university computer-science education.
Abelson and Sussman also have been an important part of the Free Software Movement, including serving on the Board of Directors of the Free Software Foundation, and releasing MIT/GNU Scheme as free software even before the Free Software Foundation existed.
Abelson and Sussman also cooperate in codirecting the MIT Project on Mathematics and Computation, a project of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (previously a joint project of the AI Lab and LCS, CSAIL's components). The goal of the project is to create better computational tools for scientists and engineers. But even with powerful numerical computers, exploring complex physical systems still requires substantial human effort and human judgement to prepare simulations and to interpret numerical results. Together with their students, Abelson and Sussman are combining techniques from numerical computing, symbolic algebra, and heuristic programming to develop programs that not only perform massive numerical computations, but that also interpret these computations and "discuss" the results in qualitative terms. Programs such as these could form the basis for intelligent scientific instruments that monitor physical systems based upon high-level behavioral descriptions. More generally, they could lead to a new generation of computational tools that can autonomously explore complex physical systems, and which will play an important part in the future practice of science and engineering. At the same time, these programs incorporate computational formulations of scientific knowledge that can form the foundations of better ways to teach science and engineering.
Abelson is known to have been involved in the publishing of Andrew Huang's Hacking the Xbox and Keith Winstein's seven line Perl DeCSS script (known as qrpff), as well as LAMP, MIT's campus wide cable music distribution system. The MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) project was spearheaded by Hal Abelson and other MIT Faculty.
In spring 2008, Abelson initiated the first "Building Mobile Application" class at MIT (6.081). The first class used only the Android platform, and some of the class projects won prizes in the Android Developing Challenge. Future classes also involved other platforms like: Nokia and Windows Mobile. The class doesn't emphasize only programming, but also presentational skills.
Abelson is the co-author of the book Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness After the Digital Explosion with Harry Lewis and Ken Ledeen, which was published in 2008.
He is a visiting faculty member at Google, where he is part of the "App Inventor for Android" team, an educational program aiming to make it easy for people without programming background to write mobile phone applications and "explore whether this could change the nature of introductory computing".
Stallman reportedly enjoys sleeping on Abelson's couch. Abelson
is credited with the following quip (though he attributes it to his
Princeton roommate, Jeff Goll) :
"If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders". It is a parody of a reverse statement first attributed to the philosopher Bernard of Chartres but often credited to the scientist Sir Isaac Newton.
This entry was initially based on an autobiography by Hal Abelson, posted on his website and used by permission.
Hal Abelson is the Class of 1992 Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the MIT, and a fellow of the IEEE. He holds an A.B. degree from Princeton University and a Ph.D. degree in mathematics from MIT.