This is a follow-up to a post I did a couple of days ago. It was induced by Tom Hern’s email concerning some of his remembrances of how computing and graphics evolution went at Bowling Green. Today I want to record a few thoughts as to how I got into computing in the first place and perhaps mention a few factors involved in my initialization.
I was a PhD student at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass from 1966 until I finished in 1970. While at Brandeis I learned that there was a requirement that each successful PhD candidate would have to pass a test demonstrating a reading knowledge of two foreign languages. The bad news was that I only had enough German in college to get by reading (not speaking) but I had only taken a year of Spanish in high school. Anyway, those days Spanish was not on the Brandeis list of allowed languages–not that it would have mattered if it was on the list, since I had forgotten most of the Spanish I learned in high-school. The allowed languages were French, German, and Russian. There was good reason for this as there was a rather large corpus of scientific journal papers and books in Physics. So I was quite concerned. What saved the day for me was a relatively new option at Brandeis: one could learn and pass a test in a Computer Language! Alas, I did not know really program in Fortran in 1966 but I figured that leaning Fortran would be a good thing to know in the future. So, I learned enough Fortran in 1967 to pass the test and also managed to pass the test translating a chapter in one of Arnold Sommerfeld’s much read series of books in various areas of Physics.
I finished at Brandeis in 1970 and took a temporary position in the Physics department at Bowling Green State University. It was a one year position, which with a lot of help from my colleages in Physics, I managed to obtain a tenure track position and thus became a permanent faculty member with tenure later on. My long-term colleague and good friend Berry Cobb helped me personally and socially. As did a group of several faculty members in Physics.
Essentially as soon as I arrived Ron Stoner made it clear how excited he was about computing and its utility as an instructional tool. I distinctly recall seeing in the long hall outside the department office an incredibly long computer print out attached to the wall stretching tens of feet down the hall. It contained some of Ron’s “graphics” showing the time development of harmonic oscillators, some damped, some not. There were probably other print outs along there too, but I recall noticing the oscillations. Pretty cool, I thought. They served as a stimulant to students walking down the hall, showing how the equations they learned could be ‘solved’ using a computer. The computer which was there was an IBM mainframe existing on the other side of campus locked behind an administrative wall. Ron would write programs in Fortran, make a stack of cards on which the statements of the program were recorded. Then the card stack was fed into a card reader, translated into machine language and eventually run on the IBM. The output would be pages and pages of Ron’s graphs and those were what he had pasted on the wall. The reason I am mentioning this is because I credit Ron with stimulating my interest to more immediately begin to explore the characterization of models of physical systems in a computer program and began my real learning of the utility of computational physics. So thanks Ron.
I got seriously interested in Einstein’s theory of gravitation again in 1974, after the meeting of the Ohio Section of the American Physical Society that Bowling Green Physics hosted in October, 1974. I had been doing research in Einstein gravity while an undergraduate and then Masters graduate student at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC. When I went to Brandeis, I elected to do a dissertation in Quantum Optics, as I figured a degree in that particular area would make me more employable. In the big scheme of things, who knows whether it would have made a decisive difference. Anyway, after I got settled in at Bowling Green I decided to return to Einstein gravity as a research focus. In those days there was much excellent research and excitement in Black Holes and in Cosmology, both of which I found (and still do) fascinating. I managed to volunteer to get the program of speakers together for the upcoming Ohio Section meeting. I got Philip Morrison, Robert Geroch, Charles Misner, and Anthony Tyson. All were central figures in the development of theoretical and experimental efforts in many of the developments in the 1960s and early 1970s, so I was very pleased that they agreed to come. I had also asked John A Wheeler but he had another engagement.
As a result of that meeting I decided to get involved in a newly forming effort to devise computational methods to simulate the time evolution of initial data describing the head-on collision of two Black Holes. The two body problem in classical Newtonian gravity has an exact solution, but due to the complexity of Einstein’s geometric gravity it was impossible to solve the equations analytically. The new approach was the only way that, with an enormous amount of work, might yield enough information to get closer to the answer as to what would be the end product. This new area subsequently called Numerical Relativity has been under development ever since and is yielding some answers to these very difficult questions. Numerical Relativity has been instrumental in addressing a wide variety of interesting questions of physics in Einstein gravity. So by the end of 1974 I was immersed in learning to write rather complex computer programs in Numerical Relativity.
Of course, these computer programs spewed out a huge amount of data. How to understand what the very large (in todays sense, this was a rather small amount of data 🙂 )? By 1975 I became involved in the necessary visualization of the geometric variables and their time evolution. Einstein’s theory produces a sequence of data sets characterizing the metric tenor and analogous geometric information, all of which needs to be visualized. There were two problems, however. One was the need to write or have someone write computer codes to read the data and display it. The other was that one needed the devices to do the display. Both were coupled and both were in scarse supply in the 1970s. The only places where sufficient visualization could be done were either at research universities or behind the fences at government national labs. So being at a mid-sized midwestern university did not make this easy to arrange. Collaboration with external colleagues where such visualization could be done was a necessity. I longed for the day when I could run modest simulations on the IBM at Bowling Green and visualize the results on ‘my own’ display device.
So, by 1975 I had a great and lasting research focus, but it was not until several years into the 1980s that I had much useful in the way of display devices. But that is yet another story.
In connecting to the previous post, I want to mention that I had been working in Numerical Relativity for six years when Tom Hern went to UNC. I had faced the difficulties of the need for both display equipment and software to massage the numbers into visualizable things. Tom’s return thus meshed with my six years experience and so I was very ready to find other colleagues interested in graphics at Bowling Green.
So, recalling the early days at Bowling Green and how I survived the paucity of computing facilities and graphics equipment is something I may try to string together in another post sometime…but this is clearly enough for now!