First Days at Yale

A Yale pioneer

The Freshman Address

President Levin recalls a pioneering computer scientist, and six first-year students tell us about staying grounded, making music, and pursuing “crazy hard” academics.

Rick Levin ’74PhD is the president of Yale University. This address was delivered in Woolsey Hall on August 29, 2009, to the Yale College Class of 2013.

Julie Brown

Julie Brown

Students return from Freshman Outdoor Orientation Trip (FOOT) outside Phelps Gate. View full image

Members of the Class of 2013,  I am delighted to join Dean Miller in welcoming you to Yale College. I want to welcome also the relatives and friends who have accompanied you here, and especially your parents. As a father of four college graduates, I know how proud you parents are of your children's achievement, how hopeful you are for their future, and how many concerns—large and small—you have. Let me try to provide some comfort. Students love it here! And surveys have shown that Yale parents are the most satisfied in the Ivy League. So, welcome to the Yale family. We are so pleased to have your children with us, and we will do our best to provide them with abundant opportunities to learn and thrive in the four years ahead.

And to you, the Class of 2013, I make the same pledge. For you, these next four years will be a time of opportunity unlike any other. Here you are surrounded by astonishing resources: fascinating fellow students from all over the world, a learned and caring faculty, intimate residential college communities, a magnificent library, two extraordinary art museums, superb athletic facilities, and student organizations covering every conceivable interest—the performing arts, politics, and community service among them. You will have complete freedom to explore, learn about new subjects, meet new people, and pursue new passions.

A few weeks ago I was browsing in a bookstore when I noticed a new biography of Grace Murray Hopper. In a flash, I knew that I would buy the book, read it, and tell you about her, one of the most extraordinary women ever to attend Yale, when you arrived here. What a perfect topic for this season, the fortieth anniversary of the first enrollment of women in Yale College.

I imagine that only a small number of you have ever heard of Grace Hopper. She was the first woman to receive a Yale PhD in mathematics, one of the first women in the nation to reach the rank of admiral in the U.S. Navy, and the first graduate of our mathematics department to be awarded the Graduate School's Wilbur Cross Medal for distinguished contributions to scholarship and public service. She made her mark on the nation and the world as a pioneer in computer programming, leading some of the most important advances in the field as it developed in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. Her story speaks to anyone who seeks self-improvement through education and hard work, and, most particularly, to you. I hope that Admiral Hopper's voyage will inspire you as much as it has inspired me.

Grace Murray Hopper was born in 1906 into comfortable circumstances on the Upper West Side of New York City. Her father was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Yale College and a successful insurance company executive. Her mother was a housewife with a passion for puzzles and mathematics. Both parents encouraged their daughter's intellectual pursuits. Grace was an avid reader, and she took an early interest in building. She spent many hours as a child assembling things from the nuts, bolts, and metal pieces of her toy construction kit. Her passion for tinkering served her well in the 1940s, when her ability to diagnose mechanical failures and repair computers made a tangible difference in the nation's effort during World War II.

When time came for college, her father's alma mater, Yale, was not open to her, so her sights were set on Vassar, one of the colleges that then attracted the most able young women in the country. To her dismay, young Grace failed the entry examination in Latin and had to take an extra year to remedy the deficiency before entering Vassar in 1924. She learned from this failure. She had no natural aptitude for grammar or spoken foreign languages, but she learned that languages (and much else) could be mastered by sheer determination and perseverance. Years later, she would dazzle audiences by writing in German left-handed on the blackboard until she had filled the board to her left. Then she would switch the chalk to her right hand and proceed to fill the blackboard to her right in French!

At Vassar, Hopper pursued a double major in mathematics and physics. She considered preparing herself for a career in engineering, but she recognized that, unlike today, there was at the time virtually no place for women in engineering. So she planned on studying and eventually teaching mathematics. Upon graduation she won a fellowship to study at Yale, where she earned a master's degree in mathematics in three years. She then returned to Vassar to join the faculty and begin her teaching career while completing her Yale dissertation.

She soon became a legendary teacher, known for animating her mathematics courses with interesting and relevant practical applications. She audited courses in astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, physics, philosophy, economics, and architecture, and drew on all these disciplines to develop unconventional and imaginative courses of her own. Whatever she taught, the enrollment quickly soared from ten or fewer to 75. She broke down the barriers between disciplines and showed her students how mathematics could link one field to another. She became a highly effective public speaker, a talent that served her well later in her career. And she was regarded within Vassar as a skillful agent of change.

Well established at Vassar College by the age of 34, Grace Hopper could have contented herself with a life as a teacher, mentor, and campus leader for the next 40 years. But her modest personal demeanor notwithstanding, she desired more. She yearned to return to the study of advanced mathematics, and in the fall of 1941 she took a sabbatical to study partial differential equations at NYU with the famous mathematician Richard Courant, a refugee who had previously headed Germany's most prestigious mathematical institute. This proved another fortuitous choice, as her new knowledge of partial differential equations provided another major assist to the war effort just three years later.

The attack on Pearl Harbor radically changed Grace Hopper's life. By the time she finished up her NYU fellowship in the summer of 1942, she was determined to serve the nation, but the outlet for that service was not yet clear. As soon as an act of Congress authorized the creation of a women's corps in the Navy, Hopper was determined to join. Initially, she was rejected because of her age and diminutive size, but again, as she so often did, she persevered, finally convincing the Navy that her talent as a mathematician could be valuable to the war effort. She expected to become a code-breaker, but, to her surprise, she was assigned to the position of second in command of the Harvard Computation Lab under the direction of Howard Aiken in the summer of 1944. She arrived just in time for the installation of the first mainframe electromechanical computer, the Mark I, designed by Aiken and built by IBM.

Aiken was a visionary and a stern taskmaster; he had very high expectations for his subordinates but stood aloof. He was initially disappointed to learn that the Navy had assigned him a woman as his second in command. Again, Hopper persevered in the face of initial adversity. Because she worked so hard and was entirely loyal, she quickly earned Aiken's confidence. Aiken soon came to rely on Hopper's counsel and to trust her completely. Because she was also a better communicator and a more accessible collaborator than Aiken, Hopper became the de facto leader of the team.

For Hopper and her small crew, the challenge was immense. Mark I was capable of making calculations in minutes that previously took teams of mathematicians weeks to perform. But for each new problem the machine had to be programmed, given coded instructions in zeros and ones that described the mechanical operations required to reach the solution. One tiny error in a program could bring the machine to a halt; but so could any number of sources of mechanical failure. Hopper's experience as a childhood tinkerer made her the lab's expert at diagnosing machine failures.

It was easy enough, conceptually, to program the machine to calculate ballistics trajectories. But at least one problem was much harder: calculating the amount of explosive material needed to bring the fissile material in the first atomic bomb to critical mass. Hopper and her team worked on this problem with the brilliant mathematician John von Neumann, who developed the partial differential equations describing the implosion that could trigger a chain reaction. These equations were of a type that had never before been solved numerically. They required Hopper to call upon everything she had learned from her year of study with Courant in order to translate von Neumann's equations into a computer program.

Working day and night under immense pressure for results, Hopper and her small team not only solved the problems they needed to solve, they also made substantial progress in conceptualizing how programs might be written most effectively. During the last year of the war, Hopper made the first of her several fundamental innovations in programming by inventing the “subroutine,” a program that could be stored in the machine to handle operations that were required repeatedly, such as calculating a logarithm. The idea was a fundamental building block in the field of computer programming.

After the war, working for Remington Rand, she went a significant step beyond by inventing the “compiler,” an invention that liberated programmers from having to be familiar with every physical operation of the computer. And then, most significantly, Hopper turned her attention to developing a programming language that was close to ordinary language—a step that would make programming accessible to a much wider group. She led the development of COBOL, for many years the most successful and most widely used programming language for both business and military applications.

In 1967, she resumed active duty as a naval officer, and spent the next 19 years advising the Navy on its computing operations and serving tirelessly as its most effective recruiter, encouraging young men and women to enlist and learn computer skills. In 1983, she was elevated to the rank of commodore, and to rear admiral two years later. She retired from active duty in 1986, the oldest officer in the Navy. After she died in 1992, an aircraft carrier was commissioned in her name.

Grace Hopper was the kind of person we hope each of you will become: a leader, an innovator, a person of deep loyalty and commitment, a hard worker, a creative force. Yale played only a small role in cultivating these qualities within her, but her brilliant career is a source of great institutional pride.

As you enter Yale College, with a new world all before you, I urge you to take inspiration from the story of Grace Hopper.

Pursue your passions as she pursued hers—from learning math to tinkering to forming and realizing a vision that computer programs could be written in ordinary language.

Give your curiosity free rein. Explore, as she did, every field of study that seems remotely interesting and find the connections among them.

Invest in acquiring skills—as she acquired languages, and math, and public speaking.

Stretch yourself beyond what is comfortable and familiar, as she did when she left Vassar to push herself to learn more advanced math and as she did again when she joined the Navy to serve her country.

Work hard and persevere in the face of initial adversity, as she did when she failed a college entry exam, when the Navy discouraged her from enlisting, when the director of the Harvard Computation Lab expressed initial disappointment in her appointment.

Be creative without isolating yourself, as she did by pursuing radical innovations in computing, while at the same time working effectively within organizations as the glue that held teams of co-workers together.

Recognize that no one else can define the limits of what is possible for you, as she did when she chose to pursue an unconventional career before her time and against all odds.

You have come to a place that offers you extraordinary opportunities for self-discovery and self-improvement. May Grace Hopper's example inspire you to seize them.

Welcome to Yale College.  

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