What is abstraction in programming

A lot of teachers (and I’m sure students) ask what does abstraction mean and I’ve given and heard many great definitions and examples (including several code.org CSP videos that cover this topic).

I came across another example today…
(excerpt from https://eloquentjavascript.net/05_higher_order.html#h_j9ps8qrlyo)

In the context of programming, these kinds of vocabularies are usually called abstractions. Abstractions hide details and give us the ability to talk about problems at a higher (or more abstract) level.

As an analogy, compare these two recipes for pea soup. The first one goes like this:

Put 1 cup of dried peas per person into a container. Add water until the peas are well covered. Leave the peas in water for at least 12 hours. Take the peas out of the water and put them in a cooking pan. Add 4 cups of water per person. Cover the pan and keep the peas simmering for two hours. Take half an onion per person. Cut it into pieces with a knife. Add it to the peas. Take a stalk of celery per person. Cut it into pieces with a knife. Add it to the peas. Take a carrot per person. Cut it into pieces. With a knife! Add it to the peas. Cook for 10 more minutes.

And this is the second recipe:

Per person: 1 cup dried split peas, half a chopped onion, a stalk of celery, and a carrot.

Soak peas for 12 hours. Simmer for 2 hours in 4 cups of water (per person). Chop and add vegetables. Cook for 10 more minutes.

The second is shorter and easier to interpret. But you do need to understand a few more cooking-related words such as soak, simmer, chop, and, I guess, vegetable.

When programming, we can’t rely on all the words we need to be waiting for us in the dictionary. Thus, we might fall into the pattern of the first recipe—work out the precise steps the computer has to perform, one by one, blind to the higher-level concepts that they express.

It is a useful skill, in programming, to notice when you are working at too low a level of abstraction.

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