As we continue with our special Thursday Thinkers series I am pleased to bring a fresh name to your attention. This week is personally exciting for me to share with you for a variety of reasons.
Frequently when we look back on technologists from the past it's quite easy to think of this field as a man's domain where anyone of any stature or of any repute was by default of the male gender. This irks me on so many levels both personally as well as professionally and I have made it a point of mine throughout my career to emphasize the equality of the sexes. I am always excited when I stumble upon a new individual whose technical prowess was previously unknown to me, but I am doubly intrigued when I discover a prominent female demonstrating not only adequation but superiority in the realm of the highly technical.
Today's Thursday Thinker is no rare exception but rather an effulgent example of this distinguished honor. Radia Perlman, in spite of her personal affront to the attribution, has been labeled by some as the "mother of the internet." (Though if you were to ask her about this she will adamantly deny this label with no shortage of revulsion.)
Radia Perlman (1951- )
Radia grew up as the daughter of two engineers. She excelled in school in both mathematics and science and found neither to be especially challenging. She was first introduced to computers during her high-school years when she took her first programming class. Upon graduation she studied at MIT and continued her exploration into computer programming through the LOGO Lab (this is the modern day MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory). Now, with the backstory somewhat behind us let's dig into some of the amazing things she's accomplished.
One of her projects consisted of developing a programming language so easy a "baby could do it" - quite literally, a 3 year old could program in this language fondly named TORTIS (Toddler's Own Recursive Turtle Interpreter System).
This lead to one of the earliest notable achievements of Radia as she has since been described as a pioneer of teaching young children computer programming.
After undergraduate school she continued on in her studies, focusing her attentions on the field of network protocol design culminating in a doctoral thesis entitled, Network layer protocols with Byzantine robustness. In case you weren't yet convinced, Radia is a thinker.
Spanning Tree Protocol
If there was one concept in particular which attributes most to propelling Radia into the stratosphere of technological thinkers and cementing her authority in the analogs of internet history the Spanning Tree Protocol is without a doubt the item you will inevitably stumble upon.
Here is my best attempt at making this advanced concept something which fits the constrains of my post today while still conveying the gist of the work performed.
I'll begin with a diagram which I can only assume convolutes the situation far more than clarifying it. But we need a visual representation to start. We need to understand the depth of knowledge she possesses and the skill with which she navigated these complex situations.
After her initial studies in network protocols and how information is transferred on the internet she identified a scaling problem. If one network node began to transmit bad packets (pushing bad data into the network) there was a very real likelihood for the entire network to be taken down irrevocably. Her work allowed for the network to be repaired after the node was removed. But she didn't stop with this advancement. Next, Radia tackled the problem of a self-healing or self-stabilizing network which would be able to continue to operate correctly in spite of a bad network node still in existence on the network. Her work in this regard made it possible for the modern internet to scale.
As you can imagine the internet "network" contains an almost innumerable nodes with an almost equally innumerable amount of "bad actors" or failing network nodes sending out false information. Radia built a protocol or system to allow the entire network to continue successfully without failure in this incredibly complex and ever-expanding environment.
Radia's Outlook on Technology
But we can't merely look at past technical accomplishments when discussing our Thursday Thinkers. We must also explore how these individuals think differently about the internet and technology.
Recently Radia was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame. Her speech at this event was a chance for her to share her views and beliefs on the internet and technology. I would encourage you to watch the video (it is not incredibly long). Some of the key points Radia highlights are particularly interesting. She believes all networks should be self-organizing, and that configurations shouldn't be able to be misconfigured. She believes things should be incredibly easy to use. The internet has to be absolutely robust and completely fault-proof.
She also speaks to the freedom of information and the many pitfalls and dangers which can stem even from something as seemingly innocuous as free information. Finally, she speaks to the challenge of the many diverse cultures of our world cooperating together in the internet. This amazingly difficult challenge exists and yet the internet works astonishingly well.
I hope you will take the time to do a little more reading into the many incredible areas where Radia has spent her life and her energy. With more than 100 assigned patents, studies in the areas of public key infrastructure, data expiration, distributed algorithms, and resilient networks the list of topics to explore is extensive.
I personally found her insights in the areas of data expiration and public key infrastructure to be particularly interesting given the ongoing discussion and my own personal dedication to the Web 3.0.
We would not be where we are today without the incredible thought and determination from people like Radia to envision the future and then create it and I trust you find this as inspiring as I have!
Oh, and lest you forget Radia's love for children and her desire to make things whimsical, entertaining and education I will leave you with a poem she wrote and included in her Spanning Tree Protocol:
I think that I shall never see
A graph more lovely than a tree.
A tree whose crucial property
Is loop-free connectivity.
A tree which must be sure to span
So packets can reach every LAN.
First the root must be selected.
By ID it is elected.
Least cost paths from root are traced.
In the tree these paths are placed.
A mesh is made by folks like me
Then bridges find a spanning tree.
- Source: An Algorithm for Distributed Computation of a Spanning Tree in an Extended LAN