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How much programming knowledge should a physicist have?

By Hamish Johnston

This week marks the launch of a new computer – but it’s not faster, thinner or sexier than the latest tablet. Instead, it’s purposely low-powered, awkward to use and it comes with no must-have applications.

hands smll.jpg

Meet the Raspberry Pi, which is really just a printed circuit board with a handful of chips that you can buy for about £25. The idea is that you connect your own keyboard and monitor to enjoy the joys of computer programming 1980s style.

Why would anyone try to flog such a throwback to a bygone era of BASIC operating systems and cassette-tape storage?

It seems that young Britons know very little about how to program a computer, and that this is a threat to the nation’s hi-tech economy. The Raspberry Pi Foundation hopes that its cheap-and-cheerful computer will encourage young people to fool around with the basics of programming and learn something useful along the way.

Personally, I think this approach is flawed. I was one of those kids in the 1980s who taught themselves how to program by mucking about on an Apple II Plus – my brother and I bought one with money earned from delivering newspapers. The sort of do-it-yourself programming we did back then is probably exactly what the Raspberry Pi Foundation would like to see kids doing today.

However, there is a fundamental difference between now and then: in the 1980s my brother and I considered ourselves part of a “geek elite” who were using cutting-edge technology to do things that few others could achieve. By contrast, I’m guessing that many Raspberry Pi users will be underwhelmed by its capabilities when compared with an iPad and find it difficult to make the connection between it and the high-powered computers of today.

I suspect that the proponents of Raspberry Pi look back at the 1980s as a golden age of DIY programming that spawned many a successful career in computing – my brother’s included. That may be true, but I don’t think that Raspberry Pi will recreate that spirit.

The launch of Raspberry Pi got me thinking about whether today’s budding physicists have less practical experience of computing programming than my generation – and if so, is that a problem?

So our Facebook poll question this week is:

How much programming knowledge should a physicist have?

None, that’s what IT departments are for
Mastery of MS Office will do
Can write a bit of FORTRAN code
Must dream in machine language

Have your say by casting your vote on our Facebook page. As always, please feel free to explain your response by posting a comment.

Last week we asked you if you thought that physicists had overhyped the preliminary finding by the OPERA collaboration that neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light – a surprising result that has recently been put into further doubt.

Nearly 60% of you thought that physicists were not to blame, with several commenters putting the blame squarely on the media. “Physicists do science. Media do hype,” said Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, while Dimitris Satkas chipped in “Physicists haven’t overhyped this thing. Media has.”

Normally, I would agree with Saint-Exupéry and Satkas, but in this instance I think the physicists were the guilty party. The smoking gun is the press release issued by CERN on 23 September that invited journalists to watch a webcast of what should have been a sleepy Friday afternoon lecture by an OPERA team member.

We had been following rumours of superluminal neutrinos in the newsroom, and in the absence of a press release we probably would have used a blog entry to tell our readers about this very preliminary result. But once the press release appeared with the full backing of CERN, we felt that we had to bump the finding up to a news story – and so did the rest of the world’s press. So, in a sense, we followed the physicists’ lead in hyping the result.

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