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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: June 2012



On the morning I began this chapter, I was driving into work and passed a sign near a grade school advertising a “Bug Safari”. When I got to work, I found out from the Web that “Butterfly Walks”, “Spider Safaris”, “Pond Dips” and similar excursions are regular fare at summer camps and neighborhood activity centers. This intrigued me: who would lead these tours? I initially thought that the most likely candidates would be trained entomologists or specialists such as lepidopterists. An entomologist studies bugs, beetles, butterflies, spiders and the like (not to be confused – as I usually do – with the similar-sounding etymologist, someone who studies the derivation of words), while lepidopterists specialize in lepidoptera, butterflies and moths.

But then I realized that it's a rare specialist who can resist being distracted by his or her own specialty. I thought about what this tendency might portend for my attempt to speak to a general audience about concepts in computer science. By most accounts, I'm an expert in computer science and a specialist in artificial intelligence. But just as a trained and practicing physicist is not an expert in all matters spanning the length and breadth of physics, from quantum electrodynamics to cosmology, so I'm not an expert in all areas of computer science.

In this chapter, I'll be talking about programming languages, an area of computer science about which I know a fair bit but certainly am not an expert.