Monday, November 28, 2005

LISP and The Unified Theory of Everything

Spent today at XPday London 2005. It was a Great day. I Listened to Tim Lister give the keynote speech, an inspirational speaker. I'll never think of dead fish in the same way again, but that’s food (pardon the pun) for another blog.

It is
3am in the morning and my mind is spinning and making connections. Perhaps spending the day with "thought" oriented people has got something to do with it. Anyway I can't sleep until I get my latest connection down on paper (or should I say down on disk).

The serverside "Beyond Java" discussion has really got me looking deeply into alternatives. One of the posts on the serverside had a reference to a modern online book about LISP and Agile development. IIn the book LISP is touted as "the programming language to create programming languages" or something like that. The claim expressed is that LISP gives programmers the ability to define their own language and thus solve their own specific problems in an optimal way.

Anyone that as used EJB, has come across the situation where you’re chosen toolset is getting in the way of you solving your problem. For a simple problem it's over kill and for a real complex problem it just isn't flexible enough. In short all the pre-defined rules which are supposedly there to "help you" are just getting in the way.

Well with LISP, there are minimal rules. LISP breaks programming down to its basic constituents: lists and symbols. If you think about it, all programs (and programming languages) are made up of lists of things. An expression is a list containing various symbols. Literals are just symbols, so are operators, and methods. Symbols themselves are just lists of other symbols. LISP calls the most fundamental symbol an Atom, so '1' or 'A' or ‘+’ is an atom.

Right so the connection. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Physics as heard about the quest for the Unified Theory of Everything. Physicists have managed to explain all natural phenomena by relating them to 4 fundamental forces (Gravity, weak force, strong force and the electromagnetic force, off the top of my head). So why 4 forces why not 40 or 4000?

It is an act of faith in the physics community that there must be a single law out there, a common thread that unifies all four forces - The Unified Theory of Everything. The thought process behind this faith goes like this. If we can identify the common thread, the single underlying common principle, then our understanding of how the universe works at a fundamental level would be much improved.

Anyway Physicists have had some success. By colliding particles with each other at ever increasing energies they have found new fundamental elements of matter. They haven't found the 'atom' yet but they are learning more about the basic building blocks that make up the universe. This research has lead to String theory. Strings are so small that they are virtually impossible to identify empirically, but theoretical physicists have good reason to believe that they exist. So as currently stands Strings are the common glue that holds together everything in the universe, the 'atoms'. So by understanding Strings Physicists hope to discover the Theory of everything. From all accounts they are well on their way.

I'm on a similar quest. I'm looking into the fundamentals of programming. I have a theory. My theory is that at its heart, programming is an intellectual exercise. It is about the ability of human beings to master complexity and chaos through abstraction. As programmers we deal with abstractions all the time. Programming languages are abstractions, libraries are abstractions, objects are abstractions etc. So what are the fundamental forces? What are the fundamental particles? What are the 'Strings' of computer science? I think that LISP may hold the key to these questions. By striping programming down to its fundamental parts LISP allows you to explore the cognitive issues involved in identifying optimal abstractions to complex problems. So in a sense LISP is the String Theory of computer science - the exploration of the fundamental building blocks of the software universe.

To me it is no surprise that LISP derived languages like Smalltalk are still the crucible for innovation in the Software Industry, despite not being at the top of the hit parade.

Connection made and stored - I guess its back to bed.

1 comment:

jareddunne said...


Interesting post. I feel like my brain is spinning in similar ways as your was when you posted this.. I am starting to see some compelling analogs between programming and theoretical physics. Makes me want to go back to graduate school...