Splitting The Atom

No, this page isn't a rant or treatise on nuclear weapons, nuclear power, or particle physics. Instead, it's about software (or at least has a large software dimension).

The name "atom" for instances of TheElements? (hydrogen, helium, all the way up to wherever-they-are...see TomLehrer) is, of course, ironic. The word "atomic" means "indivisible"; something the elements were long believed to be. Now we know otherwise--atoms are composed of electrons, protons, neutrons, and a whole bunch of other stuff. (Many of those particles are in turn composed of quarks and the like). The ability for us to split atoms (or alternately, fuse the smaller particles into new atoms) is rather controversial--its main two applications are power generation (with possibly nasty environmental consequences) and weaponry.

Turning to software: Many programmers/computer scientists/software engineers, in their quest for a better understanding of the discipline (as well as better and more complete abstractions), often look for opportunities to split the atom--to take something which is indivisible (or usually considered to be indivisible) and find a way to split it into parts. As part of scientific inquiry, this is always a good thing.

On the other hand, especially in production programming, we may be better off dealing with whole elements (elementary "particles", if you will, arranged in "stable" configurations). It may be less powerful, but it frequently is safer and easier to deal with. Chemists are much more able to control chemical processes (which operate on whole atoms, and molecules thereof) than are particle physicists able to control processes at the particle level.

Conversely, many great advances in computer science have occurred when someone discovers how to fuse two or more independent entities (which might be ConsideredHarmful by some) into a higher-level form which does the same thing, but is more difficult (or impossible) to use inappropriately.

Some examples:

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