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Re: Mathematica and Lisp

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  • Subject: [mg129502] Re: Mathematica and Lisp
  • From: W Craig Carter <ccarter at MIT.EDU>
  • Date: Fri, 18 Jan 2013 00:53:53 -0500 (EST)
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On Jan 17, 13, at 13:50 PM, Richard Fateman wrote:

> On 1/16/2013 8:54 PM, W Craig Carter wrote:
>> On Jan 17, 13, at 12:14 PM, Richard Fateman wrote:
>>> There may be such courses in physics, statistics, etc departments,
>>> but this should be classified as a utility course, akin to "how to use
>>> the microwave oven in the lunchroom".
>> Was this analogy meant to be pejorative?
> Not especially,. just illustrative.

OK, no harm, no foul.  I think we nearly agree. There are certainly parts of "real computer science" that would benefit engineers. I don't mistake what I do as "real computer science" or "real mathematics".  My only goal is to teach the students how to think. I find Mathematica an excellent tool to do that, and they acquire useful tools in the process. I am confident that I am doing the right thing.

I spend far too much time defending this position; so I am sensitized to the microwave comment. Please consider the comment below on this.

> I have met physical scientists who assume that a computer scientist knows LOTS of
> programming languages, not just FORTRAN.  I have seen programming languages designed
> by physicists who tried to learn by osmosis, but made some fundamental errors.

True. I agree that most of my colleagues are unaware of large difference between computer science and programming in a language. I imagine this is a source of frustration to many computer scientists.  However, there are many examples of the converse misunderstandings as well.

> I hope it is not called Introduction to Computer Science.

I have no illusions that I'm teaching computer science.  However, I am pleased that I can explain a Hamming distance metric and the students can immediately see the utility of the concept, but I don't expect them to construct an efficient algorithm to compute a metric. However, I would be very pleased if my applied science students tried to construct an algorithm---however inefficient---out of mere curiousity.

>>  Equally important, the students learn math and a means to acquire more math on their own---and quickly.
> So the course is something like  "Introduction to Mathematical Modeling in Material Science"
> perhaps "... with an introduction to programming language X...".

Correct. I confess to the sin of pride with the content of that course.  I believe every applied science department should have one like it. Linear algebra isn't required for engineers at my institution.  I consider this extremely short sighted. However, to convince a curriculum committee to agree, I had to make the course serve multiple purposes---including an introduction to linear algebra.

>>  I teach fundamental concepts of my discipline by using novice programming, numerical analysis, symbolic algebra: voila, canonical discipline knowledge and transferable skills in one course.
> eh,sounds like E7 except last I heard, it didn't include symbolic algebra, but
> made some fuss about object-oriented programming.

No such fuss in my case: it pleases me when see they difference between Cos[Pi] and Cos[ArcCos[-1.0]] and when to use one or the other.  I realize there are finer points of interval arithmetic that I don't comprehend as fully as I'd like, but I don't think this should disqualify me from teaching the nature of precision and symbolic computation.

>> The "microwave usage" analogy diminishes the importance of an indispensable tool to an applied scientist or engineer.
> I think a microwave oven is indispensable too :)

Indeed--my life would be much richer without microwave ovens; but that wealth was purchased with no effort whatsoever and I don't have any transferable skills besides those which transfer between popcorn and frozen dinners.

The intellectual benefits of learning how to use a microwave shouldn't be compared to those of learning a useful tool with utilities beyond what the manufacturer imagined.

>> I have physical science colleagues who consider programing and linear algebra to be superfluous because they use spreadsheet tools.
> I think that is justifiable, for some people.  Many mathematicians consider computers quite worthless
> because to them, mathematics has to do with creating proofs, and computers (mostly) don't do this.

That's a fairly broad brush, but OK.  However, I consider that inflexible viewpoint ("worthless") as anything but  shameful intolerance for that group of many.

> Some professional engineers lived their whole careers using tables in handbooks. Times change,
> of course, but not all engineers do terribly novel things.

Agreed. I imagine (hope)  that you might agree that description is not limited to engineers.

> It is unlikely that an engineer will be called upon to write one, much less a collection, of
> different sorting programs.  So a course on algorithms that provided such an experience would
> seem to be, vocationally speaking, unnecessary.  Though the exercise might be intellectually enlightening
> nevertheless.

My opinion is that distinctions between computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians, physicists, etc continue to become much more diffuse; this makes me optimistic---but it also might make me uninformed.

I am not sure if you would classify yourself as a computer scientist or as a mathematician--I would guess you would be more content not to classify yourself within one discipline at all---and you may object with others trying to classify your contributions as one or the other?

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