Null Programming Philosophy

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2022-05-13 12:00:16

Programmers often think of simplicity as a means to correctness: a difficult yet noble path to complete and air-tight abstractions. Tony Hoare is a famous computer scientist (winner of the 1980 Turing Award, the highest achievement in computer science) that spent many years working on formal methods and program verification.

While many of his ideas have had a substantial impact (CSP, which influenced the concurrency patterns in languages like Go), many of his methods have proven too challenging to find widespread adoption in broader programming. His most used contribution might be one he's least proud of – he invented the null reference in 1965.

Null lets programmers go faster and fill in the blanks. Sure, some (maybe all) null pointers could have been replaced with proper mitigation. But null was easy and practical.

While Hoare detested his discovery of null (just as G.H. Hardy believed that his only valuable work was in pure mathematics), it illuminates a different, more practical school of programming thought. One that does not view simplicity as a means to correctness but elevates simplicity to a goal more important than correctness.

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