TITLE: Turing Award History: Fran Allen AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: March 21, 2007 2:03 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Frances Allen For the last month or so, I have been meaning to write about a historic announcement in the computing world, that Frances Allen receiving the Turing Award. This is the closest thing to a Nobel Prize in computing as there is. The reason that this announcement is historic? Allen is the first women to win a Turing. Women have long made seminal contributions to computer science, something that most computer scientists know and appreciate. But it's a milestone when these contributions receive prestigious and public acknowledgment. You can also listen to a short interview with John Hennessy, the well-know computer scientist who is now president of Stanford, in which he puts Allen's award into context. In one of her interviews since receiving the award, Allen reminds us that women these days are underrepresented in computing compared to when she began her career in the 1950s. Women were better represented in computing than in most other science and technology disciplines up through 1985 or 1990, at which time their numbers began to plummet -- precipitously. This is a trend that most of us in computing would like to reverse, and one that Allen has working to correct since retiring from IBM five years ago. Let's not allow the social implication of Allen's award to steal attention from the quality and importance of the technical work she did. The chair of the Turing Award committee said, "Fran Allen's work has led to remarkable advances in compiler design and machine architecture that are at the foundation of modern high-performance computing." Her primary contributions came in the areas of compiler design and program optimization, techniques for making compilers that produce better executable code. Her early work is the theoretical foundation for modern optimizers that work independent of particular source languages and target machines. Her later work focused on optimization of programs for parallel computers, which contributed to high-performance computing for weather simulation and bioinformatics. I found one of her seminal papers in the ACM digital library: Control Flow Analysis; check it out. Thinking about this award helps us to remember the "applied" value that derives from basic scientific research in an area as theoretical as compiler optimization can be. By making it possible to write really good compilers, we make it possible to create higher-level programming languages. This makes programmers more productive and also widens the potential population of programmers. By advancing parallel high-speed computing, we make it possible to study much larger problems and thus address important social and scientific questions. This latter point is an important one in the context of trying to make computing more attractive to women, who seem to be more interested in careers that "advance the public good" in obvious ways. Allen herself has stated her hope that high-performance computing's role in medical and scientific research will attract women back into our profession. -----