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In Theory

Boston abounds with colleges and universities offering diverse approaches to education. In engineering, the leading lights when I went to college were the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Northeastern University, two schools as different as Smalltalk and COBOL. Over in Back Bay was Northeastern, with an emphasis on practical skills and on-the-job experience through cooperative education. On the Cambridge side of the river was Tech, where basic science reigned and the stress was on theory not practice, on the fundamental principles of engineering. It was rumored that Northeastern-trained engineers were productive the day they were graduated, while Tech grads might take five years before they really earned their pay. On the other hand, in another five or ten years, the Northeastern students would be approaching early obsolescence, while the Tech tools would just keep ticking.

Theory is not the poor handmaiden of practice—it transcends practice. Theory can reach into the future. When Einstein worked out E=m•c2 there were no nuclear reactors. Before it was an observation, the planet Pluto was a prediction; in theory it had to exist based on Neptune's orbit. On a less cosmic scale, the theory of modular complexity at the heart of structured design predicted experimental results that came years later and anticipated key issues in object-oriented programming, even though OOP was not even yet an idea when coupling and cohesion were conceived.


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