File /Humanist.vol22.txt, message 139

Date:         Thu, 24 Jul 2008 15:29:49 +0100
From: Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty-AT-MCCARTY.ORG.UK>
Subject: 22.137 Michael S. Mahoney
To: humanist-AT-Princeton.EDU

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 137.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to:

         Date: Thu, 24 Jul 2008 15:24:06 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <>
         Subject: Michael S. Mahoney

Dear colleagues,

The great historian of science, mathematics, technology and computing,
Michael S. Mahoney, Professor of History at Princeton, died last night
after a severe heart-attack while swimming.

Mike, as everyone knew him, was one of those very few for whom I would
have relinquished many of my years and the life that has come with them
in order to be his student. I first met him through his writings while I
was trying to figure out what relation humanities computing might have
to the experimental sciences. I could see that both kinds of practice
shared the epistemic use of equipment, so I figured there must be some
relation worth knowing about. Characteristically Mike put versions of
most of what he wrote online, so familiarity came easily, and some
understanding followed. Then I buckled down and worked my way through
papers such as the wonderful "Software as Science -- Science as
Software" (2002), which I must have read 5 or 6 times at the first go.
Then another historian of science, Jed Buchwald, an old friend and a
former student of Mike's and Thomas Kuhn's at Princeton, invited me to
give a paper at the Dibner Institute (MIT), at a conference on the
history of recent science. This gave me a chance to try out the ideas I
had formed, based largely on Mike's work, on the subject of humanities
computing and the sciences. Subsequently, as the paper was working its
way into print, Mike served as a reviewer, anonymous of course but
immediately recognizable. Put as simply as I can, his commentary on
that paper taught me how to do it right. Or, rather, as
right as I am able.

When I was asked to organize a year-long lecture series at King's
London, which I entitled 'Digital Scholarship, Digital Culture', Mike
was one of those I invited. His lecture, "The histories of
computing(s)", along with the rest were later published in
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 30.2 (2005). Required reading for
everyone in humanities computing, I'd say, and I would extend the
invitation to all historians of any stripe. Faced with a hugely
intractable subject for the intellectual historian's craft, Mike had the
wit and wisdom to understand and the honesty to express what we cannot
say about computing. "The major problem", he wrote in 'Issues in the
history of computing', "is that we have lots of answers but very few
questions, lots of stories but no history, lots of things to do but no
sense of how to do them or in what order. Simply put, we don't yet know
what the history of computing is really about." This from someone who
knew the mathematical and technological bases of computing, how to trace
the many strands of computing's development and (as Siegfried Zielinski
has said) to look for the new in the old rather than the old in the new.
"Hype hides history", he remarked in his King's lecture. He knew that
questions were the scholar's gold and that they were being obscured by
the promoter's (and the promoter's academic helper's) shameless blather.
He did more than anyone else I know to show us how we might find that

I cannot claim a long personal relationship. I wish I had been of the
right age at the right time and place for that to happen. But I can hear
the voice and see the face. I know more from him of what our kind can
do. Thank you, Mike. Farewell.


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