The Story of a Scientist Living in Windows on his Mac

Ever since Apple moved to Intel CPUs capable of virtualization, Macintosh customers have been aware of the potential for Windows to be used on a Mac. For many, it's an abstract concept spiced with a little bit of disdain. Last week, I got a close-up glimpse of a working scientist exercising Windows XP to conduct real work on a Mac -- and loving it.

I spent all of last week skiing in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. For those not familiar with the area, Steamboat is a major destination ski resort in the northwestern part of Colorado, about a three hour drive from Denver. It's a week of heaven for skiers, and with 24 years of skiing under our belts, my wife and I can really enjoy the area.

Steamboat base

Steamboat Base Area

Joining us was an old friend, a Ph.D. atmospheric physicist that I met in the Knoxville, Tennessee Ski Club back in the early 1990s. He's the kind of person who goes to NOAA in Colorado for a month to do research, publishes text books, teaches by invitation in Sweden, and skis wherever and whenever he can. During the week, my friend had some additional work to do, and brought his recent model MacBook Pro along.

Raised, so to speak on PCs, he had become irritated by them. I had been urging him for years to switch to a Mac, but his tools were PC-based, and it just wasn't realistic to become a Mac user until the arrival of Intel Macs and a virtualization package like Parallels Desktop.

In the evening, after dinner, I watched him work. (Fortunately we had a 1 Mbps DSL line in the condo.) With Parallels 4 and Windows XP SP3, his Mac's screen was covered, in full screen mode, with a wide assortment of tools that he used to write Fortran code, graph his results, and write technical publications.

Steamboat: Sunshine Express Lift

The tool suite, all PC stuff, looked like this:

  • Parallels Desktop 4.0 for Mac
  • Windows XP, Service Pack 3.0
  • Boxer Text editor 10.0.0 - Boxer Software
  • Grapher 5.0 - Golden Software
  • Surfer 7.0 - Golden Software
  • Lahey-Fujitsu Fortran 95V5.6 - Lahey Computer Systems
  • Microsoft Office 2003
  • Microsoft Visual Basic 6.0
  • PCTeX 6.0 - Personal Tex, inc.
  • PDF Creater 0.9.5 - open source
  • Adobe Acrobat 5.0 - Adobe

All of a sudden, as I watched my physicist friend work, I became acutely conscious of several things:

  1. Fortran, as I preached within Apple for five years, is far from a dead language. It's the lingua franca of science, and any company that supports scientists should support Fortran. There are literally billions of lines of research code written in Fortran.
  2. This suite of tools is not fancy. No Eclipse IDE with plug-ins. No Perl scripts for various compile options and command line arguments. No tortured movement of data from one OS to the other, just for the sake of using Mac tools.
  3. Significant science, real science, was being conducted on a Macintosh -- with a considerable amount of joy. My ski buddy never complained about Windows, nor did he have much of a vested interest in the "Mac" way of doing things.
  4. He enjoyed the overall quality Mac hardware, the very nice "Coherence Mode" of Parallels, the ability to click on a file and have the right app in the right OS open it, and the genuine ability to simply close the lid on his MacBook Pro and put it to sleep. When he opened the lid, he was working within seconds -- a very different experience from PC laptops as he described it. 
  5. The suite of tools was probably not the most efficient collection in terms of work flow, but what I saw, and I've seen this before, this scientist focused solely on science, code and results -- not endless tinkering, tuning or OS attitude.

There is a price to pay for that focus. Little things are lost on this new Mac user. Things all of us were born knowing about the Mac are just not obvious to a scientist working in this mode. All he's interested in is his hundreds and hundreds of Fortran files, his graphics, and his research papers.

Yampa Valley

Yampa Valley View from Ski Trail

As I said, we all know that there are people working like this, but seeing it in person drove a point home. There are Mac users out there who use their computers to get real work done, and they select the tools that they're comfortable with. Windows XP, in this case, is not a spiritual end -- it's simply a container that has a suitable assortment of tools.

Unfortunately, the Mac experience was marred. Somewhere along the way, the "Macintosh HD" icon disappeared, and no amount of Mac-magic I could apply could bring it back. We had to resort to the Mac OS X "Go" menu and the "Show Path Bar" option to navigate around the system higher than /Users. In addition, the MBP's keyboard had recently failed and my friend had to purchase an Apple wireless Aluminum keyboard as an accessory. That, regrettably, reflected more poorly on Apple than anything a simple, largely unmodified and seemingly stable version of Windows XP could come up with.

That was eye-opening too, even if it was a one-off case that likely doesn't happen to many Mac users.

In addition, (Mac) Thunderbird was doing some very annoying things with e-mail attachments, and a migration over to the Apple Mail app was strongly recommended. His Web surfing is also done on the Mac side, wisely, in Safari.

As a writer and someone who knows a little about Macs after using them for 25 years, I sometimes get carried away with the Mac as a Mac. However, in this case, I was reminded again, in a personal way, that there are more important things than knowing about Macs for the sake of knowing it. Whether one is exploring the intricacies of atmospheric science, doing engineering stress calculations on a ski lift tower, or writing a science fiction novel, it's all about what we achieve with the tools we use.

Even if our tool is a well-behaved version of Microsoft Windows on a MacBook Pro.