Spanning the Tree: Dr. Radia Perlman & Untangling Networks

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As computer networks get bigger, it becomes increasingly hard to keep track of the flow of data over this network. How do you route data, making sure that the data is spread to all parts of the network? You use an algorithm called the spanning tree protocol — just one of the contributions to computer science of a remarkable engineer, Dr. Radia Perlman. But before she created this fundamental Internet protocol, she also worked on LOGO, the first programming language for children, creating a dialect for toddlers.

Born in 1952, Perlman was a prodigy who excelled in math and science, and in her own words, “Every time there was a new subject or a quiz I would be very excited at the opportunity to solve all sorts of puzzles”. She graduated from MIT in 1973 and got her Masters degree in 1976.

While she was working on her Master’s degree, she worked with Seymour Papert at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, which was working on LOGO, the first programming language for children. In the simplest version of this language, kids could learn the fundamentals of programming by writing programs that controlled the motion of an on-screen or motorized turtle. …

After getting her masters and leaving MIT, Perlman joined BBN, a defense contractor, then moved to Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1980. At DEC, she was tasked with looking into ways to deal with the increasing complexity of the local area networks (LANs) that the company was creating. Specifically, how do you stop data from getting trapped in a loop?

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