Amazing Grace Hopper

A black and white photograph of a young Grace Hopper.21st Century Women in Physics and Sciences

At a time when the United Kingdom’s Education System is being put on the spot for encouraging the enduring gender bias in subjects being taught at school, Google celebrates the 107 year-old birthday of Grace Murray Hopper in classic Google Doodlestyle.  That is, Dr Grace Hopper.  Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper.  “Amazing Grace” Hopper. 

A study published by the Institute of Physics (IoP) found that 49% of state-funded mixed schools in England tend to reinforce the gender stereotypes, in terms of what subjects students do study at A-level, and are then likely to follow in Higher Education.  The IoP report reveals that in many mixed state schools, the proportion of girls taking Physics is lower than the national average, which is already skewed to just one girl for every four boys.  It uncovers a worrying trend of increasing gender bias across six subjects.  Whereas subjects like Physics, Mathematics and Economics are becoming further biased towards boys, English, Psychology and Biology remain dominated by girls.

Read the IoP Report: Closing Doors – Exploring Gender and Subject Choice in Schools.

The good news is that some schools, like Cheney School in Oxford, are successfully bucking the trend.  And there are female role models in Physics and other male-dominated specialties.

 

A photograph showing Grace Hopper standing in front of an old-fashioned mainframe computer.Grace Murray Hopper (1906 – 1992)

As a child, aged 7, Grace Murray Hopper determined to find out how an alarm clock worked, and went on to dismantle seven alarm clocks before her mother had the chance to realise!

Grace Hopper is the American scientist who initially developed the computer programming language COBOL.  Eeeep!  (I say “Eeeep!”, because I have memories of training to program in COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language), and most college students found it a computer language particularly arduous work to assimilate.)  The popular computer term “debugging”, meaning fixing computer glitches, (inspired by the actual discovery of a moth insect inside the computer) has been credited to Grace.

Grace Murray Hopper graduated from Vassar College in 1928 with a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and Physics, and she earned her Master’s degree at Yale University in 1930.  Grace then began teaching Mathematics at Vassar in 1931, and was promoted to associate professor in 1941.  She earned a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Yale in 1934.

 

“Amazing Grace”

During World War II, Grace enlisted into the US Navy Reserve, one of many women to volunteer for service in the WAVES.  In 1944, she graduated first in her class, and was assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project at Harvard University as a lieutenant, junior grade.  Hopper served on the Mark I computer programming staff headed by Howard H. Aiken.  She co-authored three papers on the Mark I, also known as the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, and remained at the Harvard Computation Lab until 1949, turning down a full professorship at Vassar in favour of work as a research fellow under a Navy contract at Harvard.

In the 1950s, Grace Hopper worked on some of the first compiler-based programming languages.  She pioneered the implementation of standards for testing computer systems and components, particularly for the early programming languages like FORTRAN (IBM’s Mathematical FORmula TRANslating System) and COBOL.  Hopper believed that computer programs should be written in a language that was close to English (rather than in machine code or assembly languages).  Her ideal was captured by the new business language and COBOL went on to be the most ubiquitous business language to date.

A photograph of Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper in uniform.From 1967 to 1977, Hopper served as the director of the Navy Programming Languages Group in the Navy’s Office of Information Systems Planning and was promoted to the rank of captain in 1973.  She went on to develop validation software for COBOL and its compiler as part of a standardisation program for the entire US Navy, and advocated the replacement of large, centralised computer systems with networks of small, distributed computer nodes that could access common databases located on the network.

In 1985, Grace Murray Hopper was awarded the rank of Rear Admiral, lower half.  In 1986, Hopper retired and she received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal.  At the time, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the United States Navy (serving for 79 years, eight months and five days).

Due to the sheer breadth of her accomplishments, Grace Hopper is sometimes referred to as “Amazing Grace”.

The proof today, if need be, that all women have the potential to excel in careers involving Computer Science, Maths, Physics, Weather Science, Engineering, Technology, Economy… or whatever fields and subjects they choose to turn their amazing minds to.