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Tech Tuesday: Computer science legend discusses digital humanities


On Friday, Feb. 19, the Rutgers Undergraduate Student Alliance of Computer Scientists (USACS) hosted Brian Kernighan, a Princeton professor and co-author of “The C Programming Language,” at the Computing Research & Education (CoRE) Building auditorium on Busch campus.

He is well known for his book, his contribution to the Unix operating and writing the very first “Hello, world” program, as stated in the event’s online description

Kernighan spoke to a packed room about digital humanities, a way for scholars in the humanities to present information about their field using digital representations. In addition, he discussed his lengthy career from his time at Bell Labs to Princeton University.

“It is the intersection of computing and the humanities,” he said. “The only difference between what’s going on in finance ... and the humanities is that the data in the humanities come from the traditional humanities in some sense.”

Digital humanities allow scholars to identify and present information in a unique way. Various universities and institutions around the world are involved with digital humanities, including Stanford University, Rutgers University and the Old Bailey, the criminal court of England, he said.

One example of this is Rutgers’ large online catalog of ancient artifacts, including Roman coins. The artifacts are all held by the University, and can be browsed online by anyone, he said.

The Old Bailey, a court that has been in use for centuries, has almost 200,000 criminal trial records from 1674 to 1913, available online for general use. The Old Bailey took written information and transformed it into searchable text.

Kernighan became interested in digital humanities after being invited to teach a course about digital humanities to seniors in computer science at Princeton. Prior to this, he had no knowledge of digital humanities.

“I was, until very recently, the acting director of the Center for Digital Humanities. The operative word there was acting,” Kernighan said. “I pretended to be knowledgeable about the digital humanities and I actually learned a fair amount about it."

Students in the course had to create their own projects related to digital humanities, using technology to create new pieces of information from the humanities, such as books and historical resources.

Kernighan explained how one student made a map detailing the travels of Xuanzang, an ancient Chinese monk, through India. The map included regional temperatures, crops and other details recorded by Xuanzang.

Xuanzang kept a detailed record of his travels through India in the early 7th century. Using this information, the student was able to create an interactive map to show how the region was divided and what each area was like.

One of the many pieces of digital humanities work that peaked Kernighan’s interest was the difficulty that arose from taking written or printed text and moving it into a digital format.

After finding books that traced familial lines from the early 20th century all the way back to colonial America, Kernighan became interested in digitizing that information so it can be easily searched.

Essentially, each page of a book is scanned and made available online. Eventually, code can be written to take those scanned pages and turn it into searchable text.

A major struggle with this is correcting inaccuracies through this process. Programs can be written to identify individual letters, but errors occasionally arise in formatting and information can sometimes be lost, Kernighan said.

“(A lot of tools) are standard tools in the digital humanities and it turns out none of them quite work right,” he said. “They worked originally but they’re often not very useful for pointing out flaws.”

Kernighan set out to solve this problem and others, putting him in the world of digital humanities. Solving these problems to aid the field while also learning more about the humanities is what keeps him interested.

After his talk, Kernighan answered questions from the massive audience, discussing some of the intricacies and applications of digital humanities and his career prior to joining Princeton University.

Early in his career, Kernighan joined Bell Labs and worked there for decades. He was able to perform any project he wanted with full freedom. It was in this time that he contributed to the development of Unix and wrote “The C Programming Language” with Dennis Ritchie.

“I wandered back and forth between things that were actually helping make better telephone systems that never saw the light of day and things like C and Unix that were visible on the outside world,” he said. “I was there 33 years, I was never once told what to work on.”

USACS decided to invite Kernighan after learning that he works nearby at Princeton University and is a well-known name in the industry, said Aditya Geria, a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences and outreach director of USACS, in an email.

Geria also noted that blending the fields of computer science and humanities is important to find new opportunities.

“This interdisciplinary perspective is not explored often enough, and we wanted to show that there's more to studying (computer science) than software engineering or app development,” he said.

Priyanka Dhulkhed, a sophomore in the School of Arts and Sciences, enjoyed the talk’s topic because digital humanities is not a subject that is regularly discussed. She said she appreciated hearing Kernighan’s real world experiences.

“It’s important for students to know that computing is not just about what they learned in class,” she said. “It's important for them to know how life will be after graduating and it's just nice to hear from a famous person and how their experience was." 

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