Below, find a link to a 5,000+ word article by James Somers and published by The Atlantic. The article focuses on ideas, work, and tools of two people.
- Stephen Wolfram, the founder of Mathematica and Wolfram|Alpha a wonderful research tool (free) we mention and use regularly (and many other services).
- Fernando Pérez, the founder of iPython (now known as Project Jupyter).
What would you get if you designed the scientific paper from scratch today? A little while ago I spoke to Bret Victor, a researcher who worked at Apple on early user-interface prototypes for the iPad and now runs his own lab in Oakland, California, that studies the future of computing. Victor has long been convinced that scientists haven’t yet taken full advantage of the computer. “It’s not that different than looking at the printing press, and the evolution of the book,” he said. After Gutenberg, the printing press was mostly used to mimic the calligraphy in bibles. It took nearly 100 years of technical and conceptual improvements to invent the modern book. “There was this entire period where they had the new technology of printing, but they were just using it to emulate the old media.”
Stephen Wolfram published his first scientific paper when he was 15. He had published 10 when he finished his undergraduate career, and by the time he was 20, in 1980, he’d finished his Ph.D. in particle physics from the California Institute of Technology. His secret weapon was his embrace of the computer at a time when most serious scientists thought computational work was beneath them. “By that point, I think I was the world’s largest user of computer algebra,” he said in a talk. “It was so neat, because I could just compute all this stuff so easily. I used to have fun putting incredibly ornate formulas in my physics papers.”
In early 2001, Fernando Pérez found himself in much the same position Wolfram had 20 years earlier: He was a young graduate student in physics running up against the limits of his tools. He’d been using a hodgepodge of systems, Mathematica among them, feeling as though every task required switching from one to the next. He remembered having six or seven different programming-language books on his desk. What he wanted was a unified environment for scientific computing.
But rather than going off and building a company, he found two far-flung scientists, a German oceanographer and a computer-science graduate student at Caltech, who had been thinking along the same lines. They’d all fallen in love with Python, an open-source, general-purpose programming language, and they’d all independently started building tools to make it work better for scientists: tools that made it easier to manage data sets and draw plots, and that encouraged a more exploratory programming style.
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