Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

The Beauty of Explanation

Robert W. Harper

Programming is a form of explanation. We explain the reasoning behind a program to ourselves and others, in terms so precise that it can be executed by a computer. A clear, crisp program is a thing of beauty. An elegant program can be as captivating as the subtle expression of an artist or the compelling logic of a mathematician. In my research I seek to develop languages that allow the expression of beautiful solutions to programming problems. Not only is the most beautiful solution the most esthetically pleasing, but it is also the most practical. A beautiful program embodies the essence of an idea with a minimum of complication.

Teaching is a form of explanation. We explain difficult concepts to our students using a combination of informal examples and rigorous reasoning, in terms so simple that the results seem obvious. A clear, crisp explanation is a thing of beauty. It is a breathtaking experience to distill an idea to its barest essentials so that it emerges as evident and inevitable. In my teaching I seek to share with my students my quest for beauty in explanation. I hope not only to instill an appreciation for the esthetics of programming, but also to encourage a greater appreciation for elegance in all things.

It is a great privilege for me to teach the best and brightest Computer Science students here at Carnegie Mellon. I delight in the enthusiasm and brilliance of our students. I learn from them as much as they learn from me. I am humbled, honored, and grateful to receive the Herbert Simon Teaching Award for 2001.

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