[Beowulf] Teaching Scientific Computation (looking for the perfect text)

Gerry Creager gerry.creager at tamu.edu
Tue Nov 20 15:43:48 EST 2007


Ooh!  Flamebait!

Nathan Moore wrote:
> I regularly teach a college course in a physics department that deals 
> with scientific computation.  After students take the course, I expect 
> that they'll be able to write simple "c-tran" style programs for data 
> analysis, write basic MD or MC simulations, and be fairly fluent in 
> Mathematica. 
> 
> In the past, I figured that with the breadth of topics included in the 
> course, Fortran, specifically the basic, simple, and reliable F77 
> dialect (w/ some F90 conveniences) was the language to teach.  In my own 
> head, my rationale was:
> - Most students can grasp the basics of fortran in half a day's reading, 
> so I can spend more class time on science and math (probably because 
> there are no pointers - I think that C is much harder for students and 
> sometimes "seems" less like mathematical syntax than f77)
> - "Classical Fortran" is a great text and is readable for self-study (I 
> know of no such text for C/C++)
> - several free compilers exist (g95 seems ok so far)
> - Netlib, lapack, and numerical recipes cover the math library adequately
> - F77 is compiled (Perl/python are too slow for an MD/MC sim and I 
> figure that students should know at least on compiled language and one 
> scripting language to be competent)
> - MPI is a relatively basic addition to the language (again, no 
> pointers, allocation, or addressing)
> 
> After reflection though, I've started to wonder about the wisdom of my 
> choice.  Specifically (like RGB), I love the GSL library, and extending 
> GSL to fortran in an intro class is non-trivial.  Additionally, most 
> vendors supply "fast" hardware libraries in C (I may be ignorant, but if 
> a student wants to call an AMD ACML fast-math function( 
> http://developer.amd.com/acml.jsp), or write a linear algebra function 
> to run on a graphics card(http://developer.nvidia.com/object/cuda.html 
> <http://developer.nvidia.com/object/cuda.html>), the vendors seem to 
> assume that you'll write the code in C). 
> 
> Also, and more relevant, I assume that most employers word-associate 
> "Fortran is to backwards as C is to competence".
> 
> So, I'm thinking about reworking the class to favor C, and fearing 3 
> weeks of pointer and addressing hell.  For those of you who teach 
> scientific computation (and also those of you who hire undergrads), I'd 
> be grateful for your thoughts.  One specific question I have is what 
> text covers scientific programming and touches on MPI using the C language.

With the advent of F90 and F95, the ability to call a C/C++ library 
routine became significantly simpler.  That said, it's not ever 
"exactly" simple to port someone else's libs from one language to 
another, but it's not really that hard, either.

In the atmospheric sciences community, well, call us backward, but most 
of our applications are still coded in the arcane language of our 
fathe... er, in Fortran.  Mostly for the reasons you originally cite. 
and, no, they haven't changed.

As for an employer looking for a C-competent programmer over a 
Fortran-competent programmer, well, they'd not get  a great deal if they 
want someone to work with a suite of models in the "wrong" language. 
They should be looking for someone who's able to deal with the language 
of interest... and perhaps to pick up a new language if the new model of 
the day warrants it.
-- 
Gerry Creager -- gerry.creager at tamu.edu
Texas Mesonet -- AATLT, Texas A&M University
Cell: 979.229.5301 Office: 979.458.4020 FAX: 979.862.3983
Office: 1700 Research Parkway Ste 160, TAMU, College Station, TX 77843

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