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TMO Interview - Why Does A Rocket Scientist Use A Mac?

by , 11:00 AM EST, January 29th, 2004

A stereotype exists among many Windows users that Macs are frivolous computers, used primarily by kindergartners, creative dilettantes, and fashion victims.

How to explain then, the PowerBooks sitting on the desks of JPL scientists as they cheered the landing of the first Mars Exploration Rover? Or how about the cluster of Xserves being used to map out the cow genome at Texas A&M?

Do we even need to mention Virginia Tech's supercomputer, made up of 1,100 2-GHz, dual-processor Power Mac G5s, for the umpteenth time?

Sorry Windows fans, but it appears that the scientific community has a thing for the Mac. Moreover, a good number have had a thing for them long before the Mac OS went UNIX on us.

Recently, The Mac Observer (TMO) interviewed David J. Stevenson, the George Van Osdol Professor of Planetary Science at Caltech. According to his Caltech home page, Prof. Stevenson works "in theoretical planetary science - [which] typically involves the use of basic physics (particularly condensed matter physics and fluid dynamics) to understand these objects."

His research interests include "the internal structure and evolution of both major and terrestrial planets; applications of fluid dynamics and magnetohydrodynamics to planetary interiors; [and the] origin of the solar system."

And, yes, this guy uses a Mac. Here's what he had to say:

TMO: What type(s) of Macs do you use?

Prof. Stevenson: I use a desktop G4 and a laptop G4.

TMO: Which models? Processor speed? Amount of RAM?

Prof. Stevenson: The problem with questions about processor speed and so on is that I neither know nor care. I guess I could look it up somewhere, but it's just too much trouble. There's nothing special or high end about what I use. My laptop's screen size is probably 14 inches.

TMO: How long have you used Mac computers? Have you always used them, or did you make the switch after the release of OS X?

Prof. Stevenson: For purely scientific computation, I used a variety of machines, including a VAX computer that cost over $30,000 when it was purchased back in the early 1980s. But once I shifted to doing my own word processing, etc., in the late 80s, I used only Macs.

TMO: What applications do you run on your Macs?

Prof. Stevenson: The usual stuff: MS Word, Mathematica, Eudora, mostly things that are available on all operating systems.

TMO: What type of projects do you run on the Mac?

Prof. Stevenson: The usual stuff that anyone does: e-mail, writing papers, class notes, some scientific calculations.

TMO: What does the Mac platform provide you with that other platforms, such as Microsoft Windows does not?

Prof. Stevenson: Nothing, so far as I know.

TMO: Anecdotally at least, it seems as if more people in the scientific community are using Macs? Do you think that assessment is correct?

Prof. Stevenson: Yes. In my experience about one-half of the scientific community I interact with uses Macs. Since only 5 percent in the general population [use Macs], this is an enormous difference!

TMO: What do you think accounts for the Mac's popularity?

Prof. Stevenson: I have four observations to make about this popularity.

One: For many of us, we were ahead of the general population in our shift to personal word processing, e-mail, and so on back in the late 80s. And in the early days, Macs were clearly superior. Later, we just didn't want to bother with reassessing our choice. We had something that worked well. Why bother changing?

Two: Scientists appreciate the quality of the product and may not be quite as sensitive about price. Macs have a reputation for quality and moderately higher prices.

Three: Ease of setup and use are also appreciated. It is generally true--at least for a while, maybe no longer--that setting up a Mac for making a PowerPoint presentation is more trouble-free than doing it for a PC.

Four: Some of us appreciate the very high graphics capability. I have an anecdote about this: A Caltech undergrad who was working with me back six years ago told me that he was going to buy a Mac for himself because it was clearly superior in graphics capability. I was so impressed by his endorsement of Apple that I bought shares in the company--a modest number! Despite ups and downs they're still well ahead in value from when I bought them.

Now there's a disclosure for you of my personal interest in Apple, but it really doesn't matter for much more than an indication of good feeling towards them.

TMO: Do you or your colleagues cluster (or have plans to cluster) Xserves and/or the new Xserve G5's as workstations to perform computations?

Prof. Stevenson: No.

TMO: Has there been any buzz about doing so after Virginia Tech built its G5 supercomputer?

Prof. Stevenson: No.

TMO: Play armchair CEO for a moment. If you could do anything to make the Mac platform better meet your needs, what would you recommend?

Prof. Stevenson: Some scientific things are harder to do on a Mac. For example, some data analysis programs do not have Mac versions. And TeX is harder to use or convert with a Mac.

TMO: Have you downloaded any songs from the iTunes Music Store?

Prof. Stevenson: Thought about it, but no, though I have former students who have. I listen to classical music, and I'm content with existing CDs.

TMO: Do you listen to music on either of your Macs?

Prof. Stevenson: I don't listen to music on computers.

TMO: Who are some of your favorite composers? Do you have a preference for a particular era or movement?

Prof. Stevenson: Sometimes to be provocative in conversations I say that "Music has gone downhill since Bach." I don't really believe that but JSB is my favorite.

But I also like the Beatles and some Stravinsky and see no contradiction!

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