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Who Speaks for Galileo?

By: Michael P. McLaughlin

It's lunch hour. Surfing time again. I click the browser icon that brings me, in a few milliseconds, to the virtual world of Macintosh. It's a pleasant domain but I wish there was someone here to talk to.

There is, to be sure, a great deal to admire: a burgeoning cornucopia of hardware, productivity tools, development systems, news, games, and entertainment of endless variety. However, I come from a much larger Universe.

On the wall above my office computer is a photograph of a very different place, a close-up view of the Jovian moon Europa, taken by the Galileo planetary probe. About all you can see is a lot of cracked, dirty ice but, where there are water and organics, chemistry might well have given rise to biology. And wouldn't that be interesting?

This picture is a somewhat superfluous reminder that the real world is not the Macintosh world; the real world is more than fun and games. In particular, it is a world that inherits its salient characteristics from the likes of Newton, Lavoisier, Heisenberg, and Einstein and not from the denizens of Silicon Valley, very few of whom have ever seen a piece of silicon or could explain that it is element number 14, and why that is significant.

We live in a world where even the far frontiers of scientific understanding are folded into the routine of everyday life -- where the smallest components of our newest computers maneuver electrons one by one, where the almost mystical mysteries of Quantum Mechanics are illuminated by the flashing laser beams of nearly every supermarket checkout counter, where the entire Earth is mapped with an invisible latitude/longitude/altitude grid, inscribed by a constellation of Global Positioning satellites, each with the theory of Relativity hardwired into its high-flying circuitry. In short, there is much more to civilization at the end of the Twentieth Century than 3-D games, email, and multimedia websites.

So where, in my quotidial quest for enlightenment, do I go to see the rest? Where, in this cyberland of Apple, do I find the software, the resources, the support, even the simple acknowledgement that quality does not necessarily consist of new, lollypop colors and that meaningful achievement is not measured in the video arcade units of murders per minute? Who here is willing to admit that grown-ups use computers, too? ...and for things that really matter, in medicine, in engineering, and especially, in that most unqualifiedly successful of all human endeavors, the basic physical sciences: Chemistry, Physics, and Astronomy. Many speak for gurus and gamers but who speaks for Galileo?

This is not simply a sociological issue; it challenges Apple/Mac advocates specifically, for at least three reasons:

  • Apple has always made much of its association with education. Indeed, Steve Wozniak, who co-founded Apple, is personally involved in this area. Does it not then behoove those who currently profit from this marketing effort to take a leadership role in furthering the goals, and not just the appliances, of education? Is this higher objective to be addressed, as it is now, merely by the inclusion of a few biographies on the AppleMasters page? Is this how we change the world?
  • The Macintosh is uniquely qualified to fulfill the demanding requirements of scientific/engineering applications. Consider:
    • The Mac is a RISC platform, with all that that implies with regard to the performance potential of future hardware.
    • The upcoming G4/AltiVec chipset will be not only superior in speed to any likely alternative but will target the very sort of parallel, SIMD computations that are the hallmark of everything from weather prediction to finite-element structural analysis.
    • MacOS X is UNIX-based and UNIX has always been the darling of the technical community. To the degree that this new operating system subsumes the functionality of UNIX and makes it readily accessible, the huge amount of legacy software that exists in thousands of laboratories and universities will be reusable.
    • Macs can be easily networked to produce computing capabilities that already match the performance of very expensive supercomputers, even without G4/AltiVec.
  • Finally, there is the obvious business reason. The scientific/engineering market is much larger than the oft-cited graphic arts market. (Do we detect a Pixar prejudice here?) Apple seeks increased market share and, therefore, it should look to large markets, as well as smaller ones.

Those scientists who, like myself, favor the Mac as a desktop platform would probably add a fourth reason. Given the critical role of science in today's society and the benefits, measured by life expectancy, standard of living, etc. that an understanding of Nature has brought about, our community deserves a lot better than second-best. Yet, if you survey laboratories, journals, or relevant magazine advertisements, you will not see the label Macintosh very often. Instead, you will see products developed almost exclusively for Wintel boxes, in spite of the amply documented fact that, dollar for dollar, the latter are decidedly inferior to a Mac.

Once upon a time, Galileo changed not just the world but our individual sense of who we are, and he did it without so much as a slide rule. For this, he got no reward; in fact, he got arrested! Still, he appreciated what was important and, for that, he is remembered. I doubt that Apple and Macs can do anything approaching Galileo's accomplishments but they can do their part. Therefore, I would proffer a plea to those at Apple Computer, Inc. and others of influence in this regard:

First of all, survive. If that means churning out millions of iToys in whatever flavors your focus groups recommend, then do so by all means but, please, realize that some of the faithful, who would like to remain so, have a very different set of priorities. Some of us care more for atomic structure than for animated gifs. Some of us think longer and harder about the speed of light than about the speed of the Internet. Some of us function quite well without a modem, or a scanner, or a digital camera or any other of the current crop of "must-haves" and we are an audience that merits attention.

After all, we do know why silicon is atomic number 14 and, if we did not, then how many people would own a Macintosh?

Created: 04/13/99
Updated: 11/09/02

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