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Macs Shine in Scientific Computing at Harvard

Macs Shine in Scientific Computing at Harvard

by , 1:45 PM EDT, April 6th, 2007

Scientists at Harvard, having found that a lot of scientific computing has been relegated to students and staff, have formed a new initiative to bring the best computer scientists in the world together. Macintoshes are playing a key role, according to Apple's Hot News.

To that end, Harvard University has formed the Initiative in Innovative Computing (IIC).

Alyssa Goodman, Ph.D., Director of the IIC, says, “What we really wanted was peer collaboration. The future of traditional disciplines of science — life sciences, physical sciences, and medicine — depends on advances in computational science in the same way that we depended on instrumentation in the previous century. Science now depends on instrumentation and computation; therefore, people from both backgrounds should work together to solve these problems. Harvard IIC was the outgrowth of this.”

While scientists come from varied backgrounds and use many different tools, which is good for problem solving, Dr. Goodman noticed one common thread in her group. About 95 percent of the people involved with the IIC use Macs. "It is funny; if you walk in here, you would think we were sponsored by Apple," she said.

One of the core tools of the scientific community has always been Unix. So, as when Apple moved to a Unix OS, it quickly became clear to scientists that they only needed one computer on their desktop. "I have removed my UNIX-only workstation from my desktop," Dr. Goodman reported, "and most of my graduate students have as well. We still use them, but they are in the background, and we use the UNIX interface in the Mac to directly interact with other UNIX hardware and software."

On of the things the Macintosh platform excels at is the combination of the computational tools in Unix and the scientific visualization power of the Mac OS. Often, the only way to obtain insight into a complex problem is through the visualization of large amounts of complex data, especially in astronomy. One of the projects, "AstroMed" has shown great success in giving astronomers insight into star formation by using 3-D representations, according to Michael Halle, Ph.D., an astronomer studying the formation of stars.


"In the initial experiment, there were lots of little turns and file format conversions, because this really was a medical imaging program — but by looking at areas that are star-forming regions with this tool, you can see a pattern where young stars are being formed, then you can see these same patterns in other locations that no one has ever reported, "Dr. Halle said. "All of a sudden people can make new scientific discoveries because nobody had ever looked at the data in this way."

Historically, scientists have used their own tools, developed on lots of different systems. The IIC is helping bring some coherence to all those tools, especially on the Mac's Unix platform. Dr. Halle noted, "There is such a potential windfall for science if we can put them all together — that is really what Harvard IIC is all about. Computer scientists and scientists can work together as peers, each with their own strengths, to make innovations that nobody has even dreamed of before."

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