[SIGCIS-Members] Great podcast series about Klara von Neumann

thomas.haigh at gmail.com thomas.haigh at gmail.com
Tue Apr 26 21:32:29 PDT 2022



In the wake of Andy's recent self-promotion, please allow me to pop up
suddenly in your inbox to let you know about a new podcast centered on Klara
von Neumann. It's season 2 of _Lost Women of Science_, fronted by Katie
Hafner of NY Times, WELL & _Where Wizards Stay Up Late_ fame and distributed
with PRX and Scientific American. Klara von Neumann made her main
contributions to the history of computing between 1947 and 1950. In my book
_ENIAC in Action_ (with Mark Priestley and Crispin Rope) we argued that the
code she wrote in 1947/8 for ENIAC was not just the first Monte Carlo
simulation run on a computer but the first "modern" code of any kind
executed on any computer. She worked hands on with ENIAC during two long
visits that year, and played an even more central role in further fission
and fusion simulations run on behalf of Los Alamos in 1949 and 1950. 


Yet despite her conspicuous accomplishments, and a prominent appearance in
George Dyson's bestselling and idiosyncratic _Turing's Cathedral_ she never
quite made list of well known pioneering women in computing. <Grumpy aside>
Compounding this general neglect, the most prominent online source about
her, a 2017 Smithsonian Magazine article, is centered on something she
didn't do (invent numerical meteorology).
ould-thank-your-phone-weather-app-180963716/ In fact she didn't write the
code for this project, wasn't there when it was run, didn't manage the
punched cards holding data, and despite the article's title doesn't need to
be thanked for your smartphone weather app. Unfortunately the bogus claim
has now been further garbled by the Guardian and written into Wikipedia, so
likely it will never go away. </grumpy aside>


In contrast, the Lost Women of Science format devotes an entire season to a
single "lost woman" which is a nice change from the thriving industry of
shoddily sourced quickie online articles recycling tired anecdotes about the
same handful of (by now well-known) inspirational women. So there's an
actual team of journalists behind it who did archival research and spoke
with a lot of people, including SIGCIS stalwarts such as Janet Abbate,
Nathan Ensmenger and Anne Fitzpatrick. I feature up quite prominently in
episodes three and four, which deal with ENIAC and the work that Klara did
with it. That's when computers enter the picture, but I urge you to listen
to the whole thing - it's a very high quality production and delves into
Klara's story to turn up information on her earlier life that I wasn't aware
of and I don't believe has been fully reported elsewhere. I was very
impressed with the team's commitment to getting details correct and its
willingness to explore the paradoxes and ambiguities of a complicated life
without trying to shoehorn it into a tidy narrative template.


The first four episodes are up at https://lostwomenofscience.org/season-2.
There should be one more coming soon, plus a bonus episode.


In addition, you might be interested in an event that was organized at the
Computer History Museum to launch the new season. It featured me in
conversation with Katie Hafner, moderated by Maria Klawe. There's a nice
blog post at https://computerhistory.org/blog/there-at-the-creation/, which
includes video snippets embedded in the text (as well as the whole thing at
the bottom).


Best wishes,






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