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What Does a Cosmologist Do At Microsoft? September 21, 2006

Posted by gordonwatts in computers, life, physics.

When 3 am rolls around, and Julia needs to be fed, it is usually my job. This takes about 45 minutes including time to calm her down enough to sleep again. I can’t really do anything — even reading is hard with a squirming baby in your hands. So I’ve taken to watching random videos I download from the net.

This one was great: an interview of Brian Beckman. Back in the 80’s he was a physicist at JPL and then moved to Microsoft Research (it was called something else back then). He has some great stories about the old days and this very cool simulation operating system he wrote at JPL: the timewarp operating system. As he said “a language no physicist could not fall in love with”: it has processes and anti-processes, messages and anti-messages, you could go backwards and forwards in time. He is right; sounds very cool.

Part of the reason I stumbled on this is that his group (?) has done a lot with functional languages and most recently has been working on the LINQ project. I’ve mentioned before that I wonder if C++ is the wrong direction for us in physics. Part of the reason is I see it as a basically dead language. Even the new features that are being planned in the TR1 timeframe strike me as fixes. Many other languages are rapidly evolving: python, ruby, java, C#, and (Brian’s favorite — you’ll have to watch the video) VisualBasic. I can’t help but wonder if some of these new technologies can make our lives in physics easier.

LINQ seems like an obvious idea: integrating selection and query directly into the language. Brian’s focus is on SQL: most database programming, he claims, is done by writing some C++ (or whatever) code and then in the middle of it embedding a SQL string: “SELECT pt,eta,z from electrons where pt>5.0 AND eta<1.1”. In short — a programming language within a programming language. Brian’s group has used techniques from the functional language world to lift those out to turn it into first class C# and VB code (and no reason it couldn’t be integrated into other languages). I’d give you an example of that above SQL statement, but I don’t know enough LINQ. One day I’ll have time for this sort of thing. 😦

Of course, could you connect it up to the ROOT backend. πŸ™‚

There are just too many interesting problems to solve in physics: physics, computers, hardware… oh, and I have a kid. And I’m on vacation!

Update: He has a blog, which looks like a great mix of physics and software. And, sheesh, it looks like he just moved his blog to here!



1. Sarah - September 22, 2006

You are not supposed to watch videos while feeding a baby. You are supposed to look at her, talk to her, think of her.. In a blink, she’ll be a grownup and you’ll realize then that you wasted your preciuos time with your baby daughter on the random videos from the internet…

2. gordonwatts - September 23, 2006

Ouch. Guilt! πŸ™‚ Well, at 3am I’ll claim I’m afraid there is not going to be any talking and my eyes are hardly open anyway.

3. Nosipho - September 11, 2007

i want to become a cosmologist but the subjects required i dont pass very well ,what advice would you give tome

4. gordonwatts - September 11, 2007

Well, there are two options. One is you have to study harder. Cosmology is a fascinating field — but it is hard. And you need to understand the math and physics before you can contribute. There I can’t help you very much other than to say you need to find someone at a school that is willing to help you do some research — that is one of the the best ways to learn.

The other options is to follow the field from the sidelines. There are lots of magazine articles and similar that you can get access to. It isn’t the same, but it is very satisfying none-the-less This is how I keep up on many developments in science that aren’t directly releated to my research.

5. S.Hawking - March 13, 2010

If you want to be good at Cosmology you’ll need about 10 years of hard study, resulting in a Phd in Astrophysics. I wish you luck, pick a good uni and stay interested. Its worth it. Keep reading the non-technical books on the universe.

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