Northwestern Events Calendar


Stephanie Dick -"Making Up Minds: Proof and Computing in the Postwar United States"

When: Monday, April 8, 2019
4:30 PM - 6:00 PM Central

Where: University Hall, Hagstrum 201, 1897 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208 map it

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Public - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Cost: FREE

Contact: Janet Hundrieser   (847) 491-3525

Group: Science in Human Culture Program - Klopsteg Lecture Series

Category: Lectures & Meetings



Stephanie Dick, University of Pennsylvania


"Making Up Minds: Proof and Computing in the Postwar United States" 


Computers ought to produce in the long run some fundamental change in the nature of all mathematical activity.” These words, penned in 1958, capture the motivation behind an early field of computing research called Automated Theorem-Proving or Automated Reasoning. Practitioners of this field sought to program computers to prove mathematical theorems or to assist human users in doing so. Everyone working in the field agreed that computers had the potential to make novel contributions to the production of mathematical knowledge. They disagreed about almost everything else. Automated theorem-proving practitioners subscribed to complicated and conflicting visions of what ought to count and not count as a mathematical proof. There was also disagreement about the character of human mathematical faculties - like intuition, understanding, and reasoning - and how much the computer could be made to possess them, if at all. Different practitioners also subscribed to quite different imaginations of the computer itself, its limitations and possibilities. Automated theorem-proving practitioners built their competing visions of mathematicians, minds, computers, and proof, directly into their theorem-proving programs. Their efforts did indeed precipitate transformations in the character of mathematical activity but in varied and often surprising ways. They crafted new formal and material tools and practices for wielding them that reshaped the work of proof. They also reimagined what “reasoning” itself might be and what logics capture or prescribe it. With a focus on communities based in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century, this talk will introduce different visions of the computer as a mathematical agent, software that was crafted to animate those imaginings, and the novel practices and materialities of mathematical knowledge-making that emerged in tandem.


Professor Stephanie Dick joined the faculty of the Department of History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania in the Fall of 2017. Prior to that, she was a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, and completed her PhD in History of Science at Harvard University in 2015. She is a historian of computing and mathematics, primarily in the twentieth century United States. Her first book project explores early attempts to automate proof and new formulations of mathematical reasoning and knowledge that were developed in tandem with them. The book offers a historical answer to the question, ‘What is thinking if a computer can do it?' By way of answer, she recovers and reconstructs how different communities theorized human cognitive faculties with automation in mind.

She is also working on the history of NYSIIS, the New York State Identification and Intelligence System, which was one of the first efforts to introduce computing to American law enforcement and to mobilize automated recognition systems for faces, license plates, and fingerprints for policing. She has also published on the history of Microsoft Windows, in particular one of its most infamous failures as a window into the experience of modern computing, and she is working on a book length study of how computer science became an academic discipline.

Her research interests are mathematics and computing in the postwar United States, artificial intelligence and automated reasoning, mathematical proof, computer memory and digital representation, human-machine interaction, software studies and science studies.

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