Fernando's Open Journal--The computer as the physicist's pencil

Fernando Caracena, PhD, physicist

©  1 May 2012 by Fernando Caracena

Revised 13 Mar 2017.

Boulder, CO

Originally, I simply wanted to construct a web page, to which I would periodically add more content. Not accustomed to half measures, I wound up writing a blog.

My preparation and area of research was theoretical physics. The work for my PhD thesis was in the Electrodynamics of Vector Bosons, which are the particles that mediate the Weak Interaction. I received my doctorate from Case Western University in 1968, a year that the president of the U S induced a PhD glut in physics.

As a result of the lack of employment in physics, I had to live by my wits for a year in Denver, Colorado. I had come out to the University of Colorado in Boulder to attend the Summer Institute for Theoretical Physics. Not being able to find a suitable position at a university, I decided This area was the best place to be unemployed. There were all those great outdoor things to do that appeal to young men.

Eventually, I was offered an assistant professorship at a start up college in the center of Denver, Metropolitan State College. [It is now a Metropolitan State University of Denver.] There, I served a stint as chairman of the physics department and also, in the Faculty Senate. Eventually, I became fed up with the political struggles that we faced being located so close to the state capital building. I looked for an opportunity to get into research. The opportunity came in the area of weather.

I saw in Science magazine that the National Center for Atmospheric Research advertised NSF postdoctoral fellowships in atmospheric research under their Advanced Studies Program (ASP). I received two post-doctoral fellowships in the ASP program, the last one on a year's leave of absence from Metropolitan State College, at the end of which I was offered a position as a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Boulder, Colorado.

At NOAA, I had begun by doing paper-and-pencil research. At the time, I was interested  in making a  computer-aided research workstation. Initially, I used  third-generation programming languages (3GL). Then I moved on to  4GL. I found the computer to be the ideal tool for becoming a Renaissance person. The great progress in computers is through the various levels of abstraction from physical forms into digital forms, which become available to individuals ubiquitously at an ever increasing pace. The process offers humanity a great means of automating many tasks of analyses. Meanwhile, computers are advancing at a blinding speed. Computers equipped with the proper software and operating system are like cyber-pencils, which one can use freely to amplify the power of thought. Computer-aided analysis does not replace thought, rather, it amplifies it so that the individual can be more effective at what he does. Cyber tools give those operating at high levels of thought, such as in science and engineering, an effective research team. The most powerful combination of people in science is one, just one individual operating at a peak level. Two half wits do not make a whole wit. Although the kind of human/computer processing featured in SciFi video programs and movies is not widely available, we are rapidly approaching that capability with increasing acceleration. The evolution of cyber-tools is more rapid than exponential--'the singularity is near'..Kurzweil.

An article giving the time-line history of computer programming development suggests that there is a lag of more than a decade in the application of newly developed languages to scientific research. For example, assembly language was developed in the 1940s, and FORTRAN in 1957; yet at the Ballistic Research Laboratories where I was assigned as a scientific programmer in the Army in 1959, people were still programming in binary machine instruction code punched into cards, which were read mechanically by a big, noisy card reader! When I left in 1961, they were just beginning to talk about using assembly language. Since then, computers have been growing smaller and more powerful at an accelerating rate.

We are at the point where we can use the strength and versatility of computers to solve increasingly difficult problems at increasing speeds on smaller computers—and then there is the cloud! Further, the hardware and its architecture is giving the desktop system the power of a mini-supercomputer. In the future, firms that offshore a lot of their operations, including software development, will find that they will have to hire the services of very high level consultants to keep them on track. This is  true in many areas, but especially so in science.

As a result of my previous experience, I work easily in fourth generation programming languages (4LG), such as IDL and python, but the development of my thinking is pushing me in the direction of  fifth generation  programming languages (5GL). It has been my experience that it is faster to learn a new more powerful language that to try do do things the slower, the old fashioned way. I have been following with interest  the development of new and exciting programming languages, such as Clojure.

OpenCl and CUDA

I am excited by recent developments in parallel processing that can turn an ordinary, desk top computer into a supercomputer. The modern video card has been optimized by using an array of graphics processing units (GPU)s, which can act also as a parallel array of processors. The programming of the GPU-array is facilitated by newly developed, C-like languages, such as, OpenCl and CUDA. Meanwhile, physics progresses at an accelerating rate.

Exciting Times in Physics

These are exciting times in physics! Except for the very bad economy, I almost wish that I was a young man again, just starting out doing physics. There are very great opportunities to do big things in physics, if you can survive economically. But maybe there have always been challenges that stand in the way of the development of individual talent. I have certainly had my share in the course of my career.

E-mail: author@ghyzmo.com

Written: 1 May 2012

revised: 4 May 2012

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