James Gosling: Java, JVM, Emacs, and the Early Days of Computing | Lex Fridman Podcast #126 | Summary and Q&A

September 24, 2020
Lex Fridman Podcast
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James Gosling: Java, JVM, Emacs, and the Early Days of Computing | Lex Fridman Podcast #126


James Gosling, the founder of Java, discusses the development of the programming language and its influence on the software industry.

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Questions & Answers

Q: What inspired the creation of the Java programming language?

The need to understand advancements in computing hardware and networking outside of the traditional computer industry inspired the development of Java.

Q: How did Java address the issues present in C and C++ programming languages?

Java aimed to solve problems like security vulnerabilities and memory management issues by introducing features like garbage collection and eliminating pointer manipulation.

Q: Why did James Gosling prioritize developer velocity in Java's development?

Gosling experienced the frustration of dealing with complex bugs and inconsistencies in C and C++ programming, which led him to emphasize a faster and more efficient software development process in Java.

Q: How did Java impact the software industry?

Java became one of the most widely used programming languages globally, powering applications and platforms across different industries, and contributing to the growth of enterprise software development.


This conversation is with James Gosling, the founder and lead designer behind the Java programming language. They discuss various topics, including Gosling's favorite irrational number, the beauty of mathematics and programming, early programming experiences, the creation of Emacs, the transition from the ARPANET to the Internet, leadership in companies like Tesla and Amazon, and the balance between working hard and being a jerk.

Questions & Answers

Q: Is the square root of two really Gosling's favorite irrational number?

Gosling states that he has no idea where that rumor started, but he does find many things in mathematics beautiful. He explains that he used to consider himself good at math but now considers himself bad at it. He also mentions reading a book about curious and interesting numbers when he was a teenager.

Q: Can Gosling recall any specific numbers that stuck with him from that book?

Gosling explains that he developed a habit of wanting to make receipts or check amounts add up to interesting numbers. However, he has mostly forgotten those specific numbers and stories attached to them. He does mention that the number 42 is famous for its significance in various contexts.

Q: Is there a story behind the square root of two?

Gosling explains that the square root of two played a significant role in disproving the Pythagorean belief that all numbers were perfect and could be represented as rational numbers. This proof shattered the notion of perfection in mathematics. Gosling also mentions Gödel's incompleteness theorems, which suggest that there are things you can't know, and the lesson he takes from it is that allowing a three-state logic (true, false, or maybe) can be beneficial.

Q: What is the parallel between mathematics and programming?

Gosling highlights that programming is all about logical structure and understanding the patterns that come out of computation. It involves finding the shortest route or program to achieve a specific outcome. He also mentions that mathematics can be messy and magical, depending on how it is approached.

Q: Did Gosling find programming beautiful like mathematics?

Gosling clarifies that he did not think of any particular language as beautiful; rather, it was about what could be achieved with it. He dismisses arguments over syntax and formatting, stating that the focus should be on what can be done, not how it is written. He also mentions the process of proving that code works and the importance of visualizing a program's structure.

Q: What was the first program Gosling wrote?

Gosling recalls learning to program on a PDP-8 computer at the University of Calgary. He explains that it had limited RAM and a slow clock rate. He also mentions using a model 33 teletype with a paper tape reader as the user interface. He built various programs, including ones for playing games like blackjack and solitaire and plotting graphs.

Q: When did Gosling fall in love with programming?

Gosling explains that it was never about a specific programming language for him; it was about what could be accomplished with programming. He enjoyed building things and realized that programming allowed him to build complex structures without the need for physical materials. Programming became a hobby and a way to explore different possibilities.

Q: What motivated Gosling to write a version of Emacs?

Gosling had been using Unix, and the main editing tool at the time was edie, which was similar to vi. Gosling found it lacking, and after using Emacs on a Pascal compiler project, he was impressed with its capabilities. Since Unix did not have Emacs, he decided to write his own version in C. It quickly gained popularity and spread.

Q: What was the early internet and ARPA net like?

Gosling explains that social life became centered around the ARPANET, with email and text messaging playing key roles. He mentions that communication was similar to modern-day chat, and it became a key way to arrange things like lunches and dates. He also discusses the resistance from cable TV, phone, and broadcasting companies, as the internet threatened their traditional advertising revenue models.

Q: Did Gosling foresee the future scale and impact of the internet?

Gosling points out that while the scale of the internet is astonishing, many fundamentals have remained the same. He mentions that he used to think about the possibilities of individuals becoming content providers and distributing various types of content, including home movies and essays. He mentions Kodak's struggle with the transition to digital and emphasizes the importance of visionary leadership in navigating such transitions.

Q: What are Gosling's thoughts on the leadership of figures like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos?

Gosling acknowledges their vision and ability to push people to work hard. However, he also criticizes the belief that leadership requires being a jerk. He mentions that being hard on people isn't necessary and cites examples of successful leaders who are not jerks. He believes that the push for success should encompass both hard work and kindness.

Q: Is working hard a necessary factor in accomplishing anything interesting?

Gosling agrees that working hard is essential for accomplishing anything interesting. He believes that the "work smart, not hard" mentality is a recipe for disaster. He cites examples of successful companies that underwent hard work and took big hits before achieving success. He also emphasizes the balance between working hard and being a jerk, stating that success does not require being nasty to others.


This conversation with James Gosling covers various topics, including his programming journey, his love for mathematics and programming, the creation of Emacs, the transition from the ARPANET to the internet, and thoughts on leadership in tech companies. Gosling emphasizes the importance of hard work and vision but also criticizes the belief that being a jerk is necessary for success. He believes in balancing hard work with kindness and treating others with respect. Overall, the conversation sheds light on the intersection of programming, technology, and human relationships.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • James Gosling started the Java project at Sun Microsystems in the 1990s with the goal of understanding and leveraging advancements in computing hardware and networking.

  • The Java programming language was created to address issues in C and C++ programming, such as security vulnerabilities and complex data structures.

  • Gosling focused on developer velocity and making software development faster and more efficient by reducing bugs and enforcing clear interfaces between components.

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