There would be no software without computer science, and no computers without software. But what do these largely obscure and abstract disciplines really contribute to a computer’s structure and operation? This question and many others are answered in the “Software and Computer Science” section.
Exhibiting the most important computers is a relatively simple task for a museum, but things become much more complex when it comes to presenting such intangible subject matter and abstract contents as software and its underlying basic principles. The HNF was the first museum to tackle this topic during Germany’s Year of Computer Science in 2006, and is now able to display it in concrete form. A black cube has introduced new aspects to the exhibition in terms of both contents and graphical information. Both the “shell” and the interior of the cube provide visitors with a wide range of information which is communicated by a variety of didactic methods.
The curiosity of museum visitors is aroused by 13 small “miracle chambers of computer science”. These provide concrete three-dimensional examples of ostensibly abstract topics: Russian nested dolls are used to explain the method of recursion, while a tin of English luncheon meat demonstrates the origins of the term “spam”, and toy robots illustrate an important software application area.
Texts and illustrations are supplemented by nine media stations. A collage of educational films by the famous American designers Charles und Ray Eames is on show, while another video station demonstrates how the problem of sorting algorithms is solved by means of a game of cards.
But visitors are also invited to explore on their own. They can trace the development of operating systems from the 1970s right up to the present day and from the first Xerox PARC programs via the Amiga OS 3.5 all the way to Microsoft Vista. Computer support is available to anyone wanting to draw the “House of the Nikolaus”. A special program explains the basic principles of Euler’s algorithm and shows the role they play in the “House of the Nikolaus”, to name just one example.
The current significance of software is documented by serious software errors, the history and consequences of which are related in the exhibition. These range from the breakdown of the US telephone network via the failure of a Mars probe all the way to the mayhem at Hamburg-Altona railway station and the crash of an Ariane 5 rocket – all cases in which minor programming errors conspired to create havoc on a major scale.
Those who wish to test their knowledge have the opportunity to do so in a computer science quiz. “What is the name of the most dangerous computer virus to date? How big is a standard punched card? Who wrote the first computer program?” are just some of the questions to which visitors can select one of three possible answers.
In addition to the exhibition area itself, visitors are invited to try out a “computer science workbench” featuring computer science toys designed to test both sleight of hand and mental capacity. These include the classic “Tic Tac Toe” and “Tower of Hanoi”, as well as the “Travelling Salesman Problem”, in which the shortest distance between the twelve German World Cup venues has to be found. A functional model demonstrates the special bucket sort sorting process.