Readers of this biography might trace my journey in computing back to my own spiritual consecration, which occurred during the afternoon mass on April 30, 1946, at St. Augustine's Church in Pittsburgh. Father Severino stands before me, his skin pearlescent and weary. He would last less than three months (I believe he sensed his end was near; I, on the other hand, was unaware of his illness). He pulls a suede pouch from his pocket, the type with a drawstring closure. Loosening it, he dips his slender fingers inside and retrieves a chain with a cross pendant. He hands it to me. It's the blessed symbol of my consecration, and I decide to wear it immediately, to keep it for my entire life. I smile: I am deeply happy, and he seems pleased too. He's known me for eight years now, since I joined the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In his own way—sometimes harshly—he's always supported me. I'm guilty of believing he had a special regard for me. So that day—with the cross already around my neck—he says:
"Iola... Iola: are you ready to serve God?"
He grips my shoulders, his gaze intensifying.
"But of course, you are," he concludes, reassured.
He gently releases his hold; I remain silent.
"Mind you, though. There is no decalogue. And I don't see here, in this church, a God in need of help."
Those words cooled my enthusiasm.
"Father, what should I do?"
He just smiles at me and goes to congratulate Sister Janette.
It took me two weeks to understand that he had set me free. By the end of those troubled days, still disturbed but certain of my intentions, I chose to pursue the study of mathematical sciences.
But to start from there would be unreasonable: a woman, as an adult, is the unfolding of the sum produced during her childhood. Let's begin again, then.
I was born in Youngstown on November 7, 1921, to Catholic parents. If my parents loved me, they did so in great secrecy. As far as I remember, they never showed me any affection, yet they fulfilled every material duty so that I would grow up healthy and educated. Now that I am here, on my deathbed—too frail even to stand—I think of them in the shadow of their gravestones and pray for them.
From the age of six, I attend St. Christine's primary school. English and mathematics come naturally to me; I'm a bit slow at arithmetic, but better with theorems: I see equivalent geometries, alternative possibilities—both by similarity and negation—; I have the habit of pushing every concept to its extreme limits, and there, I observe its minimum and maximum form. I've been reading from a tender age. The more I grow, the more my written English develops a pace that readers find pleasant. Some say I have a journalistic tone: I justify that I write as I think, but I suspect it's rather the other way around.
On the outermost streets of the town, I pause to examine the plants that inhabit the borders: with my fingers, I dissect the flowers and fruits, study the morphology of the seeds, the variation in shape from one to another, and then the design of the leaf, the scents emitted by the stem when rubbed between the palms of my hands. Professor Mary Taylor believes I'm suited for the natural sciences, but what interests me most are mathematical proofs, because one thing is to take something as true just because someone said it, another is to ascend, through unassailable logic, from a handful of simpler truths to the fact that it is indeed true. One January morning, I tell this to Taylor in the white light of the snow beyond the windows that reveals the empty classroom—while the voices of my classmates echo in the hallway—her face briefly lights up.
"It's an idea that goes beyond mathematics," she confides. In her voice, there's a painful solemnity. For the first time, she embraces me.
But no matter how much I apply myself to music, I fail. I replicate the score with mechanical precision, yet I don't feel the intonation, and when Maestro Brusher elongates a G-flat with his voice, and I have to find its correspondence among the tense strings, I almost always err by a semitone. What does it matter if you don't excel at something?, I tell myself. Yet, when I see Henry Sullivan play Schubert's Berceuse with a slightly off-tempo of his own invention, and a play of chromatics on the theme that isn't in the score, I clap at the end of the performance, but only with effort.
On April 7, 1935, for the first time, following an invitation at mass from my mother, Miss Nellie Livingston enters our house. Her nails are painted with a half-moon of enamel, and around her neck, she wears a string of ivory pearls fastened with a white gold clasp: despite her meticulous attention to appearance, she would have been incomparably beautiful even stripped of it all. When we have guests, for some time now — given my no longer girlish age — they have stopped sending me out to the yard with my brothers. I gain an opportunity to observe her. The conversations they have don't matter to me; or perhaps I don't follow them well because I listen little and watch more than I should.
Nellie visits us with sporadic regularity. During an afternoon coffee — two months had passed since I had first seen her — I watch her lay her cup on the Rockwood Pottery terracotta saucer, with peach flowers on a brown background. The coffee must have left a bitter taste in her mouth, for she asks me, with her usual grace, for a glass of water. I hurry to the kitchen, take the bottle from the basin with ice, and am about to fill the glass when right there, through some trick of the mind, the thing I've been chasing and always eluding me implodes into a decipherable thought: I want to grab her by the hair and lick the lipstick off her lips.
On December 12, 1938, Aunt Ophelia, in the presence of my mother, clarifies that I am now a young lady: she warns me that from now on, prudence is required. Prudence for what?, I ask, but she inquires about Gerland Ray, a young clerk in the accounting department of the printing house run by my father. He's very handsome, she assures, and my mother translates: good family, excellent job, deeply Christian — a necessary condition for my father and even more so for my grandmother to accept any union — and then, she concludes, detaching her hands from the table, his maturity exceeds the chronological age of his twenty-four years. I mutter a Yes, he's handsome. In truth, I don't even remember what he looks like. I tell Aunt Ophelia that I remember his younger sister better: just the right height, green eyes, freckles on her nose, and a voluptuous body.
"She seems like a grown woman but is still so naïve that she doesn't look at men," she reassures; my mother endorses the view with a complicit smile.
On December 17, Aunt Ophelia drags me for a walk around the town. By great fortune - as she puts it - we run into Gerland Ray. She introduces him to me with enthusiasm: he seems shy to me. Ten days later, on the evening of December 27, 1938, gathered at my paternal grandparents' house for the Christmas holidays, I announce that I have received the call of the Lord. This time my mother faints. Immediately assisted by relatives, when she recovers, questioned about the causes of her illness — and with more probing by my maternal grandmother, and also my father, dark, silent, waiting for a clarifying answer — she blames a trick of emotion. The choice, she declares, is too happy. Still trembling, she congratulates me with a hug.
Six months later, I enter the convent; in time, I will discover an unexpected faith. After the novitiate, at the end of a temporary profession that lasts almost four years, in April 1946, I become a nun permanently and choose — as already mentioned — to devote my best energies to the mathematical disciplines.
For several years, my life progresses along two strangely converging tracks: spiritual development and in-depth study of calculus. Until, at the end of '51, I begin teaching mathematics at Perry Traditional Academy, in the heart of Pittsburgh's Hill District. Soon, my interest in teaching overshadows that in the subject itself; I apply innovative teaching techniques, some of which gradually make their way into a school system attempting its own evolution, others the fruit of my personal research conducted in the field, right there, in the school where I teach.
I am a pioneer of learning through problem-solving: I won't say it was my precise intuition, but I am among the first to attempt a systematic approach, so much so that in '53 I dare to set up the entire Freshman Year program as a series of increasingly complex problems. Students are encouraged to solve questions carefully chosen to be just beyond their abilities; they mostly fail. Only then, and almost grudgingly, do I provide the mathematical tool necessary to overcome the obstacle: I present it not as an abstract notion, but as a useful means. The need for this tool, as well as the final outcome — the fall of the seemingly insurmountable problem — produces a more involved learning, in circumstances that allow the students, for their entire lives, to associate a certain category of problems with a specific solving technique.
This brings me a limited notoriety, enough to drag me into years of monotony made of teaching, prayer, and the occasional conference on modern mathematics education. In 1955, these experiences coalesce into a report of results, which a year later takes the more complete form of a Manual for Modern Teaching of Mathematics, published in March 1956. I still keep the photo that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post, of me holding the book at chest height.
Five years later, I am sitting in the office of Sister Superior Mary Wojciechowski, director of the renowned Franklin College, where I have been teaching for three years. It's May 6, 1961.
"The fact is," the mother superior reports skeptically, "we must prepare for the era of computing. Then she whispers into the room's emptiness: "It seems it will have extraordinary effects on every field of life."
She turns back to me, more practical.
"The funds are there. And there's a project for the purchase of an electronic calculator, to create right here, at Franklin, a mixed-use computing center: both scientific and educational."
"That's wonderful news," I say ceremoniously. She doesn't care.
"And then, Sister Iola, there are the right people: like you."
"I'm afraid I know almost nothing about computers."
"And that's why you're here. You see, just this morning I spoke with the vice-chancellor of the University of Indiana, where a doctoral program in computer science has just been activated."
Pause. I try to anticipate the trajectory of the conversation; sticking to the most incontrovertible facts almost always works.
"Mother, perhaps you don't remember my personal details, but I imagine my face speaks better than a date: I am forty-one years old."
"I would have guessed five years younger." She must have caught my skepticism, because she adds that she's serious. Then she becomes somber.
"You're an innovator, sister. Think about it. The doctorate is open to men only, but this morning, on the phone, they reassured me they would make an exception. It doesn't always happen."
My accommodation in Purdue, Indiana, has a total of three rooms: an unadorned kitchen (but adequate), a bathroom, and a double bedroom. At the foot of the bed is a dresser with bulging drawers and a base of Guatemalan green marble. Above the marble lies a now exfoliated mirror. In the morning, I regularly attend classes, leaving the doorway behind to skirt State Street, up to Memorial Mall. Coffee break at Burton's, almost always sitting at the back of the narrow, long room, at one of the tables facing the street window. No need to go beyond the greeting: Miss Elodie already knows what to bring me. The view is depressing, the plain tires the eye, and the excessive symmetries, the thought. I drink coffee with cream and sugar and leave a little early.
In the doctoral program, I'm the only woman but not the only adult. There are other men of mature age: graduated in mathematics ten or twenty years before. A few in physics and engineering. The rest of the boys are in the prime of life, mostly between twenty-two and twenty-eight. The first few weeks they observe me in surprise: a woman and moreover in religious attire (they don't understand it's simpler than that: a woman because in religious attire). Over time, surprise oxidizes into habit. From there on, I'll be Sister Iola for everyone, and that's enough to exchange impressions on the just-finished lesson and even to ask for my help in the cases of a less obvious equation.
The lessons are quite interesting. Despite my theoretical background, what excites me most is the approach with the electronic calculator: not just its use in terms of the instrument's possibilities — which for me at that moment are still an enigma — but also the physical approach I have with it, with the plastics and enameled steel in ocher gray, when I am in the room of the IBM 7090, in the chill of the air conditioning too biting, with the operator feeding punched cards into the optical reader's cavity. During reading, the card produces a sound of mechanical sliding. The holes in the paper first become bits in the transistors of the IBM, then the digital representation flows back into a physical phenomenon, this time of a different nature, polarizing the magnetic tapes on the ten-and-a-half-inch reels. Their rotation makes me dizzy.
Towards the end of the second term, I acquire the rudiments of programming in FORTRAN. A short but arduous journey. I sense that writing code is akin to learning a new language. There's the same feeling of inaccessibility — which I had experienced years before with French, and perhaps my more advanced age now sharpens. Fortunately, over the years, I have repeated the same sentence to my students so many times that I end up believing it: Daily practice is the key to unlocking anything complex. Indeed, this system grants me increasingly agile progress.
But despite my most feverish efforts, some of my peers always remain a step away from the moment when everything seems to clarify: I am forced to question the theory I have so often repeated — for some of them, it goes worse: they are forced to give up on the doctorate —; the fact is that by the end of the term, I know enough to write the first program of a certain complexity.
There are two things that attract me the most at that moment: the enlightening revelation that through the computer it is possible to perform certain mathematical calculations entirely bypassing the analytical route, using only the brute force of reckoning so swiftly, and then the possibility of using chance, more precisely the sequences of random numbers that the computer can generate.
On the generation of random numbers, on March 16, 1962, I have a revealing conversation with Professor Douwe Kluyver, visiting Purdue from Carnegie Mellon.
Two minutes before the start of Kluyver's lecture, my algorithms professor — to whom we owed the prestigious visit — had briefly introduced me to him. I don't know why he had done it, perhaps to justify my enigmatic presence. After the pleasantries, there followed an exemplary exposition on the vast theme of generating numerical sequences by the computer: if not the best overall, certainly among the most illuminating explanations I had ever attended. When he finished, after an applause that burst spontaneously on the embarrassed professor, as the room gradually empties — and my professor, with a group of students, comments nearby on the concepts expressed by Kluyver — I cautiously approach him. He is putting his books into his bag.
“May I speak with you?”
Of course, he says. He has the air of someone who listens attentively. He had shown it also during the lecture, during the students' questions he himself stimulated; while they were being asked, it seemed that his interest was absorbed in understanding every nuance. And then I am a nun, and for such circumstances, I am listened to longer and more often than others. I dare a somewhat bold question.
“During your lecture, you talked about how to generate random numbers with successive multiplications and divisions, but you warned us that in such a process there is nothing truly random. It seems clear to me: the explanation was exhaustive and I understand very well that a series of mathematical steps has nothing truly unpredictable. Then, however, you said that there are techniques for generating numbers that are really the result of chance. I admit that thinking about it seems impossible. If you have time, I ask you to enlighten me on this matter.”
Kluyver stops tightening the straps of his bag.
“My plane leaves in the late afternoon. Please, follow me to the blackboard.”
He grabs a piece of chalk from the tray. He begins to write and almost immediately resolves to break it in two. He has a rather uncertain handwriting, with which he marks the first ten numbers that make up pi on the slate. He finishes the sequence with three final ellipses; a veil of dust is released from the blackboard and slides slowly towards the ground.
“Did you know that the digits of pi have a completely random distribution?”
“I had never considered the problem.”
Before continuing, Kluyver encircles some digits of the number.
“It's a result that has been better verified thanks to the computer. In fact, there is no periodicity, nor does a given digit stand out for distribution over the others. But I ask you a question. If I started drawing lottery numbers using the digits of pi, would you know which numbers to play?”
“It seems obvious: I would calculate the subsequent digits and I would be almost certain of winning, unless you changed the extraction criterion.”
He clenches the chalk in his fist, as if my answer had scored him a point.
“Here. This is a decisive fact. Translated into mathematical terms, we can say that the information entropy of the digits of pi, even if they appear to be randomly distributed, is very low. The whole sequence could be compressed into a short program that calculates them.”
“I think I understand.”
“Have you read Shannon?”
“No matter. If we agree on this fact we can continue. The method of generating truly random numbers is based on measuring certain physical characteristics of the punched card reader. I have developed a program that reads and rereads the same bits from the inserted card, and each time measures the delay in reading. The value of the bit is ignored: it's useless. What matters is the exact delay in reading the bit, that is, how long it takes to read it; this depends on various physical factors: from the motor that turns a rubber belt, from the precise speed of its rotation, and also from the way the belt vibrates and from the mechanical stress that the motor torque exerts on it, deforming it. Therefore, the delay varies slightly with each reading. Well: let's assume we use the milliseconds of this time as the starting state of a random number generator, perhaps one very similar to the one I just described, with multiplications and successive remainders. As you can imagine, this time the process is not deterministic.”
I watch him admiringly, or perhaps I should say astounded (time sometimes fades memories, other times saturates their colors).
“It's amazing... It's no longer a closed system.”
“Excellent. What do you say, in light of this, about the lottery numbers extraction? How would you behave this time to succeed in winning?”
I thought about it for a while, perhaps it was a trap.
“Well, if we assume that the mathematical method used for the extraction of the numbers makes good use of the random delay, in short, if there is no bias in favor of one digit or another, then I would have no chance. I could only guess like everyone else, because the hand of the one who draws, the randomness of the mixing of that hand and the fingertips that of their own will decide whether to pick up this or that number, has been replaced by a phenomenon of equal unpredictability: the delay in the movements of the carriage.”
He smiles. He drops the chalk in the gray plastic box and returns to the straps of his bag.
“If you pray as well as you reason, God might really listen to us. But read Shannon.”
In the way of putting random numbers into practice in a functioning program, I think about it even on the weekends spent out of town, on the bus to Indianapolis, lulled by the sway of the road. I've bought a pair of shoes and two tailor-made suits: one blue, with a skirt above the knee and a six-button jacket, the other pale pink with straight trousers. At Purdue, I don't dare, for fear someone might recognize me. As soon as I get off the bus, I slip into the crowd, towards the department stores. Hidden in the dressing room, I shed my monastic attire. I apply lipstick to my lips and let down my hair — which in the meantime has reached my chin. With the appearance of an ordinary woman, who has never taken vows, perhaps of a lady everyone would say is married (and certainly a mother more than once, because of my age and wide hips), I immerse myself among the people in the city center. I am a bit awkward. The clip of the earrings — plastic, domed button, a dirty white that flaunts something falsely high-class — bites into my defenseless lobes. Moreover, the bag that guards my secret weighs more than is comfortable. I don't care at all: with every step, I discover a detail of my body; every second flows into at least ten. I walk in lady's shoes as is proper for someone who wears them. I catch interests I don't seek: from men, who size me up with obvious intentions. In shops of all kinds, I approach younger women. I feign a selection of merchandise: I make a note of the quality, ask for advice; some glances that test the stranger. That I am not the only one, I learned in years of convent life.
For the final exam in algorithms, I decide to set up a program that approximates the value of pi using a technique known as the Monte Carlo Method. We start from a premise: usually, the value of pi is obtained analytically. But with Monte Carlo, it's like shooting at a target several meters away. The target is square, and inside the square, there is a circle tangent to the edges. If we assume that the shots will be imprecise, and hit a different point of the target each time — randomly and well-distributed, without any preference for one part or another, or for a specific side or angle — then after shooting many shots it is possible to remove the protective earmuffs, walk up to the riddled target, and once there count the holes left by the bullets that have passed through the circle. And then count separately those that have hit the outside part of the square, outside the circle. You end up with two distinct quantities, expressing the proportion between the area of the circle and the area of the remaining square in which the circle is contained: the ratio of these two quantities, multiplied by four, approximates the value of pi.
The more astute reader (and also quite hypothetical since I will burn this writing as soon as it's finished, and if I can't do it there will be no reader anyway; at most I will entrust it to the drawer of my hospital room, and maybe the nurse who has been taking care of me for weeks will find it: she can do what she wants with it). I was saying: the reader will have noticed that my program needs to verify whether each point falls inside the circle or not. It's true: but verifying this fact requires the simple Pythagorean theorem (used in calculating the distance from the center of the circle).
Something unpredictable happened. Through a lower order of mathematical knowledge, with the speed of computers, and finally with the aid of chance — or rather, the simulation of chance, since a computer is by definition condemned to repeat the same steps — we arrive at the calculation of a constant that would require more advanced mathematics. This means that the horizon of what can be calculated shifts forward. In those days, I become aware of a fact that would greatly accelerate human progress: using known mathematics, together with the electronic computer, I can model and simulate phenomena that go beyond my analytical abilities, perhaps even my own understanding of the universe.
On June 21, 1964, I become the first American woman to earn a doctorate in computer science. My thesis is titled Electronic Computation of Differential Equations: Pioneering Approaches in the Dawn of the Digital Age. In this work, I bring together what I knew about mathematics with what I had learned about computers. The result goes beyond the purpose of the doctorate: my program in FORTRAN is even used by NASA. It supports the main software for verifying the trajectories of space missions. The core of the thesis is the program that performs differential calculation. Encouraged by my advisor, I had shared it with several research institutes, even two months before the public dissertation. Even the letter that arrives from MIT is ahead of the dissertation; however, I delay. I write to the mother superior only after ruminating for several days. I mail the letter on the morning of June 25, 1964.
Two years have passed since my move to Indiana. As you know, my interest in computer science has grown immensely: nothing now excites me more (apart from the love for our Lord; but here I pose more earthly matters). I am deeply grateful to you. You encouraged me toward a path so fruitful for me, but this gratitude painfully clashes with what I must necessarily announce to you: I will not return to your college. I have accepted a research position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I plan to move before the end of summer.
I send my warmest regards to Sister Joan, whom I have missed so much since I last saw her last Christmas. I will visit you soon, current circumstances prevent the quicker visit I would have so desired. Finding accommodation in Cambridge will be laborious. MIT has promised to help me (both in this and in other practical matters), but I do not want to rest on this thought.
I wish Franklyn the bright future it deserves, and to you the health and strength necessary to guide it through the years.
With immense gratitude,
Sister Iola Varga.
The response arrives eight days later, while I am still at Purdue.
You know me well enough, masking emotions is not my forte: the arrival of your letter has shaken me. We counted on your help, which now, after more than two years of waiting, has vanished overnight. The projects the school needs to launch now remain leaderless; I would have liked, at least, a less advanced notice of your decision. I could have better prepared.
At the same time, I am certain you will achieve the success you aspire to. But do not forget humility, and the fact that you are, before anything else, an instrument of the Lord (although, allow me to say, a rather unusual instrument). But if things have gone this way, it will also have been to accommodate a more far-sighted plan than mine, a plan to which I, unwittingly, have contributed. Without my intervention, you would not be there now, and soon you would not be at MIT. From any angle, this story shows that blaming you solely for the course of events would be shortsighted. I wish you much luck.
With affection in the Holy Protective Father,
Sister Mary Wojciechowski, Superior.
Order of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.
Before leaving, I must deal with a matter that torments me far more than my failure to return to Franklyn: Myrtle White. I had enticed her one October morning in the wallpaper department at Sears, both of us engaged in the careful selection of suede cushion covers. I remember her hands inspecting the seams of the flaps, in the violet light spilled from the store's neon lights.
We meet again the following week, in a secluded bar on the edges of Fountain Square. We talk like old friends. Only that we have no real reason, nor is there any prior connection between us. She wears a rope-colored beret from which a strand of hair escapes knowingly. The age comparison makes me six years older (I thought she was even younger). We both hope for the same outcome: the problem is finding a way to get there. It takes two more coffees and as many half-mornings of subtly ambiguous compliments, followed by the necessary words to bring the problem into focus, first always through very distant allusions and in the end almost more explicit than necessary.
Our refuge becomes the Severin Hotel, where we meet weekly every Sunday morning at 10 sharp, with her more put together than usual — her children and husband think she is shopping — and I, as a precaution, in religious attire. The first time she sees me in that state I fear causing her a bout of repulsion: I will discover with surprise that the effect is the opposite.
At the reception, we are almost always greeted by the same man in his forties. He greets us with entirely aseptic courtesy, so much so that even the exchange of keys is mediated: he performs a precept of always the same gestures to hand them over to a large brass shell. We usually spend an hour and a half, two at most, once less than thirty minutes (Myrtle had a change of heart while I was undressing her: she never wanted to talk about it and it never happened again). When we return to the reception, there is always the same type with the same mustache and the same patience sewn onto his suit: we hand him the keys, pay, and leave the hotel. Myrtle almost always insists on paying. Once we step outside, each of us goes our separate ways.
One morning we go on for too long. Myrtle rushes out at least an hour late, moreover without any purchases in hand, betraying the very reason that had taken her from home; I head alone to the reception. The man at the desk looks at me gratefully: “God bless you, sister; what you do is admirable.”
He declines any attempt at payment.
Myrtle is unaware of the MIT letter, nor does she know that I will soon be leaving Indiana. For some time, we see each other rarely, and when it happens, it seems like we're following a script that's too studied.
That Sunday, she refuses the hotel visit. She says we have nothing to do there. She drags me to the bar we occasionally frequent. Better this way: I'll be able to inform her of my news.
We're sitting at a round table. She wears a cream suit with a blouse under the jacket. Her flesh-colored nylon stockings, the necklace of fake pearls she often wears — she has sensed I find them sensual, but I suspect she doesn't like them —; her hair is in a bouffant. She claims that I've neglected her, that I'm too caught up in my computer research and haven't had a kind word for weeks. I only care about dragging her to that room. And then she says that her sins, already inconceivable to her, are insignificant compared to mine, who swore before God.
"You swore too, on your wedding day."
I shouldn't have said that. She inadvertently raises her voice, which until now has been a whisper:
"And you've become like my husband. If all I can have is a man, I might as well stay with the father of my children."
She gets up hastily and walks away briskly, while from nearby tables they throw me dismayed looks. I watch her reach the corner of the street; I am full of shame and desire.
Six months later, in Cambridge, I receive a letter written on elegant embossed paper; it must not have been easy for her to come by my address. I release the paper from the envelope, leaving it folded in three parts. For several days, I read only the lines of the visible rectangle: they press where it is most effective to press; I would certainly give in. On the fourth day, I carry the mutilated letter, reinserted into the envelope — deprived of that first rectangle, which I cut out and keep forever —: the rest I tear up in a trash can on Norfolk Street.
In Cambridge, the end of the summer of '64 is a green canvas turning to yellow and orange. At the end of the street is a large maple tree. Before evening, its red flares with the last sun.
I participate eagerly in the meetings of the sisters engaged in the council's reforms (in 1959 I was among the first to adopt the simplified habit of the Order of the Blessed Virgin) and this is how the city reveals itself to me: marching in parades for black voting rights. Harvard Square seems the apex of the world and I am on top of it.
Those at MIT welcomed me with a laborious round of introductions and a visit to the buildings and then a magnificent evening at Club 47. I ate and drank — they were surprised by the drinking — and listened to music until late. Here I live better than at Purdue: I don't have to take any bus, and Cambridge is certainly not Indianapolis; especially for me who doesn't drive.
At work, for the first time, they let me move freely from one group to another. It's not a common procedure: usually one is assigned to a specific project to remain there for a considerable period of time; at least for a few months, but it often happens to stay there for years. They insist that by doing so I can better tune into the overall picture of the computer science research taking place at MIT. The favoritism at the beginning irritates me, but its utility will eventually emerge. Later on, this way of proceeding would become almost the norm.
Unfortunately, the researches that most attract me fall under the group managed by David Rosenberg, a man with hair down to his shoulders and an unnatural courtesy that makes me uncomfortable. It doesn't help that it's also the group with the fewest number of women — already a minimal quantity elsewhere —, but at least here I'm not the only one in the entire institute. As one can easily guess, I am still the only one in religious attire (then I couldn't imagine it, but I would have given up those clothes within three years).
There's something ambiguous about computer networks. As long as you use them, they give you the impression of a continuity that you know does not exist (you know it only if you understand how they work, and although you may know it, they try in every way to deceive you), as if under the rubber of the cables veins and arteries intertwined to irrigate the space between one computer and another. The reality is more discrete, in both the sense of the lack of mathematical continuity and its factual limitation. Small packets of data, composed of a few hundred characters, take shape in the transistors of the computer's memory. Then they are transmitted individually through network interfaces. An imperfect process, not exempt from errors, to the point that each packet is subjected to the pillory of the checksum. If a 1 becomes a 0, or vice versa, the entire packet is discarded from the flow: there is no mercy for corruption. And yet, this system, as well as everything behind its minute details — the algorithms, protocols, physical data transmission interfaces — underlies a fiction in which the dazzling and almost tangible idea of a smooth, fast, reliable flow replaces material reality. It's a farce that soon exchanges itself for reality, and thus in some way becomes the most authentic reality.
I am captivated by this fine artifice. In it, I see reflected the beauty of the cosmos in contrast to the chaos of the electrical truth of the black rubber cables and the impulses that cross them (in which, by contrast, I begin to discern something that has to do with vulgarity). I ask David Rosenberg to let me permanently join his workgroup; I communicate to him that I ardently wish to work on routing protocols. He appears perplexed, says he needs to think about it, and that others, before me, are waiting to join that effort. Before cutting off the conversation, he still wavers and adds that certain phone calls have already been made and certain letters written.
The next day, I show up in his office with the sheet on which I had jotted down some ideas for an adaptive routing protocol. I've been working on it obsessively for a month and a half, even at the expense of sleep, but in front of Rosenberg, I pretend to have sketched those modest proposals that very morning, on the Red Line that takes me to the institute every day. He asks me some very sharp questions, a couple of which reveal certain unresolved points of my project (absolutely understandable weaknesses for an idea born just a few hours ago). He looks intently at the sheet: later he will confide to me that he was already thinking about the development of those ideas more than their initial form.
"The position is yours," he says finally, shakes my hand, and leaves the office, leaving me alone. On the desk, the orbs of Newton's cradle bend the light of the window seven times. I pick up the sheet with my notes. I leave the office fearing I'm not up to the bluff.
At noon on August 10, 1967, I cross the threshold of the Old North Episcopal Church. It's out of my neighborhood: I've walked a long way under the sun. I arrive for the second time; two days earlier just to inquire about the confession schedule.
Behind the grate, I defend myself with a long preamble that the priest interrupts to get to the point:
"Do not fear, sister: sin nestles in the human soul."
As I recount, he remains silent until he closes into the darkest silence when, at the acme of the confession, he suddenly exclaims: "Enough!"
I wait for the penance, fearing he will come out of the booth to confront me.
"Go away," he says, "you are absolved of all sin."
On January 4, 1974 (I'm not certain, it might have been the fourteenth of the same month), for my work on wide-area networks, I am awarded the Wallace McDowell Award. After the ceremony, David Rosenberg takes me to dinner. We've been through a lot, and that award is in some way his too; perhaps it would have been his in more practical terms if David had not been such an upright man. From his position, he could easily have taken credit for it, officially relegating me to the role of assistant.
That day, I even indulge in a Carrot Cake. He follows my suggestion and after a few bites declares himself satisfied with the choice.
“And to think I'm not crazy about carrots,” he emphasizes.
I change the subject.
“I've rethought my career: I've advanced easily.”
“You're good,” he cuts off.
“That wouldn't have been enough. I've seen researchers, secretaries, card punchers belittled and bypassed in various ways. Even Martellini, right? And the other who left a few years ago, Briony Standish: they didn't get far. Standish was very good.”
He abandons his fork:
“To me, it's because they don't see you as a sexual object.”
He resumes eating nonchalantly.
“Because I'm a nun or because I'm old?”
“Nun. If you were old, you'd be an old sexual object.”
He finishes the cake.
“It was good. You know… I remember well when you arrived with us: you were neither old nor ugly. Don't laugh, I'm not an expert on women, but I can tell when a woman is attractive.”
In the middle of the last paragraph, my hand cramped. I finished it, letting the muscles rest between many pauses; when I reached the end, I dropped the pen as if it were a dead worm. The nurse comes in, makes some notes on the medical chart, changes the IV, and leaves with her disheveled tangle of blond hair. Sometimes she bursts into the room at the peak of my concentration: I lose my train of thought and have to start over.
I haven't written for three days: I'm not well at all. The doctors keep silent out of compassion; I avoid questions out of cowardice. Today, in a revival of the body, I found a small residue of strength.
I reread what I've written: it's lacking. I'm plagued by doubts about the fidelity of certain events, and if I try to verify them, it's even worse: the writing replaces the memories. Corrupted memory bits, 0s that become 1s and vice versa; I don't want mercy either.
And then too many pieces are missing.
I haven't written about when, two years after my arrival in Cambridge, I unexpectedly leave for a few days and go to Indianapolis. About how, in a handful of mornings, walking through the streets and at times I knew to be hers, I finally meet Myrtle, under the grim sky of that cold February. About her initial astonishment and the violence of her ways after my reappearance. About me remaining motionless on the sidewalk while she yells at me to never show my face again.
Nor have I been able to report as deserved the network protocols I worked on for so long. About the beauty of the interconnected nodes chirping to each other the necessary to compose a changeable image — and the most incorruptible achievable — of the supportive mesh they participate in.
I haven't written enough about David Rosenberg, the greatest friend I've had in life, I the keeper of his secret and he of mine.
I've glossed over the alienating sensation that assaulted me during visits to my parents' house, among the streets and borders where I grew up, with goldenrods and carrot flowers with the mimic fly, and how, consequently, I had increasingly rarefied them.
I've even kept silent about the death of my father and mother, which occurred in the sole presence of my brothers.
Nor will I write about my illness and the many mortifications it has inflicted on me in these last three years.
For this and more, there's no time. Now enough: I'm tired, it's fine this way.