John McCarthy, 1927-2011

By Razib Khan | October 24, 2011 10:20 pm

John McCarthy has died. Sadly I was expecting this, I was told that McCarthy was still teaching courses in 2008 by someone in Stanford’s computer science department, but he was in obvious bad health. One of the major downsides of the incredible information flow in the internet age is that you often hear through the grapevine that eminent so-and-so is ill, and have to prepare yourself years ahead for the inevitable. We all die, but it seems starker in the case of those individuals who have grasped upon a fragment of the sort of immortality given to Gilgamesh.

In the early to mid-2000s I had some conversations and arguments with McCarthy about the history of Islam and the politics of the Middle East (in hindsight I knew a lot more about the former than I did the latter). He followed Gene Expression now and then in the course of his meanderings around the web. Initially I did not make the connection that this was the John McCarthy, which was especially ironic in that I was playing at learning Lisp at that moment! Outside of his domains of almost godlike achievement I have to say that McCarthy was a relatively no-nonsense down to earth person from what little I could gather. He was curious about what he didn’t know, and if you weren’t aware that he was one of the most accomplished computer scientists in the world he didn’t seem too keen on cluing you in. My own overall impression was that he was a deep pragmatist and skeptic.

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Comments (5)

  1. dev

    Since you mentioned Gilgamesh, I couldn’t help be reminded of Gilgamesh’s question to Utnapishtim and his response (from David Ferry’s excellent verse version of the epic): “‘I look like one whose grief lives in his heart, / because of the death of Enkidu the companion. … Must I die too? Must I too be like that?’ … ‘Time after time the river has risen and flooded. / The insect leaves the cocoon to live but a minute. / How long is the eye able to look at the sun? / From the very beginning nothing at all has lasted.'”

  2. Charles Nydorf

    With its rethinking of the notions of function and variable, LISP is the only intellectually profound programming language I know of.

  3. Sad news. And the fact that we are saddled with XML instead of S-expressions is absolutely tragic.

  4. pconroy

    Yeah, it’s sad that 2 of the IT greats died a few weeks apart.

    First Denis Ritchie – inventor of C and Unix – and now John McCarthy – inventor of LISP and coiner of the term “Artificial Intelligence”.

    Yet the MSM is only full of stories about Steve Jobs, when he wasn’t so much a technologist as a Marketing and Branding genius, along with being a micro-managing, disagreeable manager.

  5. Larry, San Francisco

    My roommate from graduate school who is now a big gun at Intel told me that LISP was the only programming language he did not have to debug. I think the problem is that most reporters know are familiar with Steve Jobs products but have no idea about C, Unix or AI. 100 years from now though, I am pretty sure Ritchie and McCarthy will be remembered while Jobs will be long since forgotten.


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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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