John W. Backus dies

Back when I was a postdoc, I was studying FFTs. Okay, actually, I’m not enough of a mathematician to study FFTs, I was studying the efficient implementation of FFTs on parallel computational clusters. One of the graduate students I was working with on the project penned the following:

If there’s a working FFT
That’s not in FORTRAN but in C
Alas it twice as slow will go
And that (as always) goes to show
If speed is your greatest asset,
Then what you C is what you get.
-V.V. (Mony) Iyers

For years, Fortran was the programming language of choice for engineers.  It’s name, a derivative of “Formula Translator,” give you an impression of what it does: it makes it easy to represent matrix algebra formulas in a computer programming language.  Because it is a compiled language and it has built in support for performing matrix algebra operations, it is extremely fast.  I never did much Fortran programming and V.V. and I disagreed on the speed of Fortran vs C (I could always tweak C code to be as fast as Fortran), but it is a great programming language for engineers that has unfortunately, largely been replaced by Matlab.

Fortran was first released nearly 50 years ago and has been updated a few time since then.  Given the age of the language, I hadn’t even thought about who invented it, and was saddened to learn that the creator (or at least the project lead) died last weekend.  John Backus was apparently the project lead for the creation of Fortran back in the 50s and he died Saturday at the age of 82.

It’s hard to imagine what the engineering field would be like without Fortran and even though I hadn’t heard of him until this week, I think I’ll miss him.

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