“ ” Scientific computing: An introduction to tools and

“ ” Scientific computing: An introduction to tools and
Scientific computing:
An introduction to tools and
programming languages
what you need to learn now to decide
what you need to learn next
Bob Dowling
[email protected]
University Information Services
I should also explain why this course exists. A few years ago a member of
the UIS conducted some usability interviews with people in the University
about the usability of some high-end e-science software. The response he
got back was not what we were expecting; it was “why are you wasting our
time with this high level nonsense? Help us with the basics!”
So we put together a set of courses and advice on the basics. And this is
where it all starts. I'm going to talk about the elementary material, what you
need to know and the courses available to help you learn it. You do not need
to attend all the courses. Part of the purpose of this course is to help you
decide which ones you need to take and which ones you don't.
This course is the first in that set of courses designed to assist members of
the University who need to program computers to help with their science.
You do not need to attend all these courses. The purpose of this course is to
teach you the minimum you need for any of them and to teach you which
courses you need and which you don't.
The final slide of the talk gives a URL through which all the relevant UIS
courses can be found.
Course outline
Basic concepts
Good practice
Specialist applications
Programming languages
Course outline
Basic concepts
Good practice
Specialist applications
Programming languages
Serial computing
Single CPU
Let's start with the most basic of concepts: the program.
A simple computer program is a linear series of instructions which the
computer does one after the other. On completing one it moves on to the
next and so on.
These instructions need not all be of the same sort. Some may take much
longer than others. Some instructions may be called repeatedly. Some may
trigger activity elsewhere and not complete until that remote activity is over.
But the principle is that a program is a series of commands which are run
one after the other.
In the simplest case all the instructions take place in the same CPU (more
precisely on a single core in a single CPU).
Parallel computing
Multiple CPUs
But programs need not be linear. In the past decade or so scientific
computing has moved into “parallel programming” where computers with
multiple processors can run the program through many of them
simultaneously. It's also possible to run multiple “threads” of control on a
single processor.
The most common form is called SIMD (pronounced “simm-dee”) which
stands for “single instruction, multiple data”. In this example the program
takes the memory allocated to the program’s data and allocates a different
CPU (in the slide, six CPUs) to run the same code over the different
components of the data.
This is typically much harder to program correctly and requires specialist
skills. Two common frameworks for developing parallel code are MPI
(Message Passing Interface) and OpenMP (Open Message Passing).
Parallel computing courses
Parallel Programming:
Options and Design
Parallel Programming:
Introduction to MPI
Distributed computing
Multiple computers
In the extreme case of parallel programming, we split the calculation not
only between CPUs but between computers. In this case we have to
consider the time taken to copy the data between computers as well.
Distributed computing courses
HTCondor and CamGrid
High Perfomance Computing course
High Performance Computing:
An Introduction
Floating point numbers
e.g. numerical simulations
Universal principles:
0.1 → 0.1000000000001
and worse…
>>> 0.1 + 0.1
>>> 0.1 + 0.1 + 0.1
The base hardware is what manipulates the data in your programs. As a
result it can have an effect on that data. For example, computers typically
work in base 2 (“binary”) so they can record real numbers like ½ exactly.
Decimal fractions like 0·1, however, have to be approximated.
The vast majority of numerical simulations require real numbers,
approximated as “floating point” numbers in computers. Under certain
circumstances this can become significant. Inaccuracies in the floating point
representation can accumulate and give erroneous results. Note that the
inaccuracies often start hidden and then reveal themselves unexpectedly.
Floating point courses
Program Design:
How Computers Handle Numbers
Text processing
e.g. sequence comparison
text searching
“Regular expressions”
But there's more to life than real numbers. Under the covers computers work
with integers just as much as, and sometimes much more than, floating
point numbers. These tend not to be used to represent numbers directly but
to refer into other sorts of data. Good examples of these situations involve
searching either in databases or in texts.
Regular expression courses
Programming Concepts:
Pattern Matching Using Regular Expressions
Python 3:
Advanced Topics
(includes a regular
expressions unit)
Course outline
Basic concepts
Good practice
Specialist applications
Programming languages
“Divide and conquer”
Less complex
Suppose you have a task you need the computer to perform. The key to
succeeding is to split your task up into a sequence of simpler tasks. You
may repeat this trick several times, producing ever simpler sub-tasks.
Eventually you get tasks simple enough that you can code them up.
That sounds trivial. But that trick, repeated often, is how programming
works. “Divide and conquer.”
“Divide and conquer” — the trick
No need to use the
same tool for each
“mini-conquest” !
The reason that this works so well is that you don't have to use the same
tool for all the subtasks. Different tools are suitable for different bits of your
task. So long as you can glue the parts together again there is no need to
use one tool for everything. While it may sound harder to use lots of different
tools rather than just one the simplification gained by the splitting and the
specificity of the tools more than makes up for it.
Read 256 lines of data represented in a CSV format. Each
line should have 256 numbers on it, but some are split into
two lines of 128 numbers each. Run Aardvark’s algorithm on
each 256×256 set of data. Write out the output as text in the
same CSV format (exactly 256 numbers per line, every line)
and plot a heat graph of the output to a separate file. Keep
reading 256-line lumps like this until they’re all done.
In practice, the instructions you are given to write code look scary at first
glance. The trick is to divide and conquer.
Read 256 lines of data represented in a CSV format.
Each line should have 256 numbers on it, but
some are split into two lines of 128 numbers each.
Run Aardvark’s algorithm on each 256×256 set of data.
Write out the output as text in the same CSV format
(exactly 256 numbers per line, every line)
and plot a heat graph of the output to a separate file.
Keep reading 256-line lumps like this until they’re all done.
So we start by dividing. What are the bits we need to worry about?
Read 256 lines of data
CSV format.
Each line will have 256 numbers on it.
256×256 set of data.
Aardvark’s algorithm
Write file CSV format
plot a heat graph
Write file
Keep reading 256-line lumps like this until they’re all done.
If we can conquer each bit we win.
“Structured programming”
Split program into “lumps”
Use lumps methodically
Do not repeat code
“Lumps” ?
Now we will look at the bits themselves. They go by various names, such as
“objects”, “functions”, “modules” and “units”. I prefer “lumps”. It's a simple,
no-nonsense word that rather deflates the pompous claims made by some
computing people.
If you split your program up into sets of these lumps, and reuse lumps when
you need the same functionality twice or more, then you stand a good
chance of success. If you don't, and write chaotic, unstructured code then
you will have to work much harder to get a program that works and harder
still to get one that works correctly.
So why am I talking about this before we've even looked at any
programming languages? It's because this rule about splitting your program
up into a structured collection of parts is common over every single
programming language. It's an absolute rule — and they're rare in this
Example: unstructured code
a_norm = 0.0
for i in range(0,100):
a_norm += a[i]*a[i]
b_norm = 0.0
for i in range(0,100):
b_norm += b[i]*b[i]
Repetition !
c_norm = 0.0
for i in range(0,100):
c_norm += c[i]*c[i]
So what do I mean? Let's look at an example of bad code. You don't need to
worry about the language (it's a language called Python that we will talk
about later) because I hope the general principle is clear. We're calculating
i =99
∑ x 2i
for three different sets of 100 values in three different parts of a program.
This commits the cardinal programming sin of repetition. If we wanted to
improve the way we calculated this sum we would have to do it three times.
(And if we want accurate sums we do need to improve it.)
We might also want to speed up our program. But does our program spend
the majority of its time doing these sums or a tiny fraction of its time? If I
spend an hour speeding it up is that more time than I will ever save running
the slightly faster program? I can't tell until I isolate this operation into one
part of my program where I can time it.
Example: structured code
def norm2(v):
v_norm = 0.0
for i in range(0,100):
v_norm += v[i]*v[i]
return v_norm
a_norm = norm2(a)
b_norm = norm2(b)
c_norm = norm2(c)
Single instance
of the code.
Calling the function
three times
So let's improve it. We take the repeated operation and move it to a single
place in the code wrapped in a function. Then in the three parts of the
program where we calculate our sum, we simply make use of this function.
(What I am illustrating here is written in the Python but the principle is
universal and hopefully it’s simple enough to read that you don't need
Python fluency to follow along.)
Structured programming
All good practice follows from
structured programming
So our code is only written once.
We can make any improvements or speed ups we want in just one place.
Furthermore we can find out how much time is spent running that function in
Also, now that we have a separate function, we can test it in isolation from
the rest of the program to check it gives the right answer! If we do find
mistakes we only have to fix the code in one place and that place is typically
easier to find.
Example: improved code
def norm2(v):
w = []
for i in range(0,100):
v_norm = 0.0
for i in range(0,100):
v_norm += w[i]
return v_norm
a_norm = norm2(a)
b_norm = norm2(b)
c_norm = norm2(c)
Improved code
No change to
calling function
So let's make an improvement.
We don't need to understand the details of the improvement but in a
nutshell, if you are adding up lots of numbers always add together the
smallest numbers first to get a more accurate answer.
(For example, in the C programming language on one particular computer if
I add up 1/n starting with n=1 up to n=10,000,000 I get approximately
15·404. If I add them up starting with n=10,000,000 and counting down to
n=1 I get 16·686!)
What is important is that I have made the improvement only once and it has
immediately affected all three calculations in the program. This would have
been much harder (three times the typing plus the work finding the cases in
the program) if I hadn't split out the calculation into a function.
All good programming follows from good structuring.
Example: improved again code
def norm2(v):
w = [item*item for item in v]
More flexible,
“pythonic” code
v_norm = 0.0
for w_item in w:
v_norm += w_item
return v_norm
a_norm = norm2(a)
b_norm = norm2(b)
c_norm = norm2(c)
Still no change to
calling function
So let's improve it again!
This version makes the function cope with sequences of numbers of any
length. This is just good house-keeping but might be useful if all of a sudden
my sequences had 1,000 entries in them rather than 100.
It has also introduced a native Python idiom which makes it (fractionally)
Again, I have only had to make the change once and there is no change to
the main flow of the code; I just call the function, same as I did before.
Example: best code
from library import norm2
a_norm = norm2(a)
b_norm = norm2(b)
c_norm = norm2(c)
else’s code!
No change to
calling function
And now we come to the ultimate improvement:
Get someone else to do it for you!
There are people who make their living writing routines to do this donkey
work extremely quickly in ways adapted specifically for your sort of
computer. They take all their functions and wrap them together in so-called
“libraries”. What you need to do is to call on one of these libraries and to use
a function from it. You don't need to know how it does it, and the details may
vary from machine to machine, but you just need to know that it does it.
These functions are written by experts. Almost certainly they have done a
better job than you ever will. So don't compete with them; exploit them. Do
not try to do for yourself what someone else has done for you already.
Never re-invent the wheel.
Structured programming courses
Programming Concepts:
Introduction for Absolute Beginners
Written by experts
In every area
Learn what
libraries exist
in your area
Use them
Save your effort
for your research
These libraries of functions are your salvation. All you need know is what
libraries exist and how to call them. Much of our programming courses
consists of telling you this and giving you an introduction to the library to get
a feel for its shape.
Your time is better spent on original research than inferior duplication of
work that already exists. Save your effort for your research!
Example libraries
Numerical Algorithms Group
Scientific Python
Numerical Python
So what can we get from libraries? The question “what can't we get”
probably has a shorter answer. You name it; the libraries have got it.
For example the NAG libraries and the Scientific Python libraries have
functions for at least the following topics:
• Roots of equations
• Differential and Integral Equations
• Interpolation, Fitting & Optimisation
• Linear Algebra
• Special Functions
and many, many more.
Hard to improve on library functions
for(int i=0; i<N, i++)
for(int j=0; j<P, j++)
for(int k=0; k<Q, k++)
for(int k=0; k<Q, k++)
for(int j=0; j<P, j++)
a[i][j] += b[i][k]*c[k][j]
This “trick” may save you 1%
on each matrix multiplication.
It is a complete waste of time!
Here's a trivial example of why you should rely on external libraries.
These two ways to multiply matrices differ in only one regard: the order of
the operations. One is faster than the other because of the way the system
manipulates the memory that the values are stored in.
You don't need to know this. You just need to know that the person who
wrote the matrix multiplication function in the matrix library you should be
using did know it and picked the right algorithm.
The one on the right is slightly faster in some languages. Neither is as
accurate as it could be because we ought to order the added terms smallest
to largest before adding them if we were concerned about precision.
However, this is the level of change that you might make to give your
program a 5% speed up.
But for large matrices the difference between these two techniques is utterly
Hard to improve on library functions
( ) ( )( )
C11 C12
C21 C22
A11 A12
B11 B12
A21 A22
B21 B22
Applied recursively: much faster
Volker Strassen's algorithm, as shown in the slide, is far more efficient for
large matrices but I doubt you would ever have thought of it. I also doubt you
would want to code it, either.
So use a library!
Time taken /
Memory used
Size of dataset /
Required accuracy
O(n2) notation
Algorithm selection makes or breaks programs.
Every function implements a recipe. It generates output from input
somehow. The posh name for that “somehow” is an algorithm. There are
efficient ways to do some tasks and inefficient ways to do the same thing.
No optimizer is going to save you from choosing the wrong way to do
For example, there are two ways to sort a list of numbers. (Actually there are
very many more than two.) Suppose they both take 10 seconds to sort 10
values. One, called “bubble sort” would then take roughly 40 seconds to sort
20 and 1,000 seconds to sort 100. The other, called “quick sort”, would take
26 seconds to sort 20 values and 200 seconds to sort 100. The rate at which
different algorithms scale as the size of their inputs go up is of critical
importance and has grown its own notation called “Big O” notation and we
say that bubble sort is “order of n squared” because the amount of time it
takes increases like the square of the number of elements it has to sort. We
write this as “O(n2)”, hence the name “Big O notation”.
The importance of picking a good algorithm cannot be overstated. This is
why you should exploit external libraries written by dedicated people. They
have found the good algorithms.
Unit testing
Test each function individually
Test each function’s common use
“edge cases”
bad data handling
Catch your bugs early !
Extreme version: “Test Driven Development”
Now we move on to another aspect of generic good practice, but another
one that comes from splitting a program into a structured collection of
If we have split our common actions into functions we can test those
functions individually or in small groups. This is called “unit testing”.
If you write a function to sum x2 over 100 values you ought to write a test
that feeds it 1 a hundred times. Do you get 100? Or do you get 99 because
you have the end condition slightly wrong?
If you get into the discipline of testing functions as you go along, then you
will save yourself an enormous amount of debugging time towards the end
of the program writing. But it does require discipline in the short term.
Revision control
Code “checked in” and “checked out”
Branches for trying things out
Communal working
Reversing out errors.
Source code for most programs (but not all, e.g. spreadsheets) consists of
plain text.
Revision control lets you say that “this is version X of this file” (or this set of
files). You can then say “go back to version 5” or “show me version 2”. Some
systems support locking where you can say “I'm working on this file; nobody
touch it.” Other don’t let you lock but merge back the changes made by
people in different parts of the same file.
Revision control systems work over multiple computers too. This lets lots of
people all work on the same project.
Another standard facility is to split off a “branch”. If you want to experiment
with some changes you start with version 5 say and then create version 5.1,
5.2 etc. rather than 6 and 7. At the end of the experiment, if you like what
you have got, you merge your final version 5.x back, or you simply drop it
and return to the original version 5.0 and start again.
Perhaps most importantly if you do build a version 6 and realise you have it
completely wrong you can abandon it and return to version 5!
Revision control
Two main programs:
Starting from scratch?
Something in use already?
Use it!
github.com free repository (for open source)
free online training
There are two current revision control systems: subversion and git.
The more recent program, git, was designed by Linus Torvalds when the
subversion program could no longer cope with his software project (the
Linux kernel).
If you have an existing revision control system, use it, whatever it is.
If you are starting from scratch, use git.
git has an additional advantage. If you are prepared to work in an open
environment (anyone can join in) on open source software there is a
company, GitHub, that will give you a git repository free. (And if not, then
they’re not too expensive.) Better still, they will even teach you how to use
Integrated Development Environment
“All in one” systems: necessarily quite complex
Most languages
Visual Studio
C++. C#, VB, F#, …
Most languages
Qt Creator
C++. JavaScript
Often sitting in front of a revision control system modern programmers often
(typically?) use an Integrated Development Environment (“IDE”).
These combine editors that help you with specific languages, guides to
other parts of your programs or system libraries, revision control systems,
build systems to see if your program actually compiles, and test systems to
run your unit tests. (You did write unit tests, didn’t you?)
By far the most commonly used IDE at the moment is Eclipse. In the pure
Microsoft world Visual Studio is a close second and the pure MacOS world
tends to use XCode.
make — the original build system
Command line tool
$ make target
Build rules
cc target.c -o target
Used behind the scenes by many IDEs
But the grand-daddy of all build systems outstrips the IDEs thousands to
one. (In fact most IDEs use it behind the scenes.)
The make program records how one file depends on another, so that if you
update one file make knows which other files now need to be rebuilt. It also
stores information about how to rebuild most types of file.
The configuration files for make, known as Makefiles are a little strange.
The strangeness harks back to the creation of the first make in 1977 by
Stuart Feldman of Bell Labs. The (potentially apocryphal) story is this:
Feldman knocked together a quick version of make which used lots of short
cuts and dirty tricks letting him write a prototype quickly. He let some people
use it and went home for the night. It proved so popular that when he
returned to work the following morning it was in use in so many projects that
any change of specification was vetoed by his colleagues.
Building software courses
Building, Installing and Running Software
Course outline
Basic concepts
Good practice
Specialist applications
Programming languages
Specialist applications
Often no need to program
Or only to program simple snippets
All have pros and cons
Microsoft Excel
LibreOffice Calc
Apple Numbers
You might not think of spreadsheets as “programming” but spreadsheets
embed single commands, which the program interprets, in amongst the
data. They are a legitimate interpreted programming system. They simply
hide it well.
There is only one spreadsheet most people are familiar with: Microsoft
Excel, part of the Microsoft Office suite of programs. There is a free
equivalent, Calc, which is part of the LibreOffice.org suite of free Office
tools. They are equivalent enough for most purposes so long as the
functions don't invoke too complex a set of macros. Apple's Numbers
component of iWork also provides a spreadsheet but is not particularly
similar to Excel.
Taught at school
Taught badly at school!
Easy to tinker
Easy to corrupt data
Easy to get started
Hard to be systematic
Very hard to debug
Best selling book,
buggy spreadsheets!
This format does not lend itself well to revision control and shared working
as everything is stored in a single, binary format file.
It is also very easy to corrupt data in a spreadsheet and notoriously hard to
debug problems.
A recent, high-profile example of this came from the book “Capital in the
Twenty-First Century”. This was a politically charged book that made some
very significant claims regarding the concentration of money in the hands of
“the 1%”. Unfortunately, the author based his calculations in Excel and made
mistakes. When the mistakes were corrected many of his conclusions
There is, incidentally, a moral in this tale beyond “don’t use spreadsheets for
anything important”. When you are debugging a program it is not enough to
stop looking for bugs when you get answers you agree with.
Excel courses
Excel 2010/2013:
Analysing and Summarising Data
Functions and Macros
Managing Data & Lists
Statistical software
There are three big players in statistics packages in Cambridge: Stata,
SPSS and R. Stata is the big commercial player (with SPSS a close
second.) R is the free package.
Statistical software
Stata: Introduction
R: Introduction for Beginners
SPSS: Introduction for Beginners
SPSS: Beyond the Basics
Mathematical manipulation
There are packages for helping with mathematical manipulation and casual
graphing of interim results. The two big players in the Cambridge
environment are MATLAB and Mathematica with MATLAB tending to
dominate over Mathematica. There is also a free product called Octave
which seeks to be a clone of Matlab.
We tend to recommend people avoid Mathematica. While it seems
deceptively easy to use at first there is no consistency to it. With Matlab and
Octave, once you know the way to do a few tasks the rest seem intuitive.
Mathamtical software courses
Introduction for Absolute Beginners
Linear Algebra
Graphics (Self-paced)
Drawing graphs
Manual or automatic?
If you want to want to plot graphs based on the output of your programs you
will need some sort of plotting package. The “bad way” to do this is to take a
graphics library (in Fortran or C, both exist) and to bolt some graphics code
into your numerical program. The right way is to have your numerical
program produce its results and then write a distinct graphics program in a
graphics-specific language or package. Alternatively you can import the data
into a purely manual graphics package and fiddle to your heart's content. I
assume you will have better things to do with your time and just want a
program to create a graph glued to the other bits of your project. This is
what I mean by “automatic” rather than “manual”.
A very common approach is to export as comma separated value files (CSV)
and to then create graphs in Excel or another spreadsheet.
There are two dedicated graphics languages: gnuplot and ploticus.
Both are available on the MCS. In addition there is a graphics module for
Python called matplotlib.
Note that even if your main program is written in Python and you want to use
the Python graphical module we still advise that you split the two tasks —
creating your data and graphing your data — into two separate programs.
Courses for drawing graphs
Python 3:
Advanced Topics
(includes a
matplotlib unit)
Course outline
Basic concepts
Good practice
Specialist applications
Programming languages
Computer languages
files get
you do
What the
Programming languages are traditionally split into two camps: “compiled
languages” which are converted from plain text to machine code which is
then run by the computer, and “interpreted languages” where the plain text is
read, line by line, by an “interpreter” which then issues machine-level
commands on the script's behalf. But reality is less simple than that and
they actually form a spectrum.
At one end we have shell scripts which are pure interpreted languages. Perl
is essentially the same, though internally the Perl text is converted into a
condensed “byte code” which is then interpreted. Python goes a stage
further and writes out the byte code for later re-use, creating a file thing.pyc
for each text file thing.py. (The “c”, confusingly, stands for “compiled”.)
However from the user's perspective this all happens automatically and
there is no need to be aware of the conversion.
With Java there is an explicit user step where the user compiles the Java
source code (thing.java, say) into a pseudo-machine code file (thing.class).
This contains code for a fictitious CPU emulated by the Java run-time
system which essentially interprets the Java byte codes. From the user's
perspective there is a compilation phase, even though what is produced is
not native machine code.
Finally there are the true compiled languages like C, C++ and Fortran. With
these languages the compilation phase generates native CPU instructions,
true machine code, which can be passed directly to the computer.
Shell script
Suitable for…
gluing programs together
“wrapping” programs
small tasks
Unsuitable for…
performancecritical jobs
floating point
Easy to learn
complex tasks
Very widely used
The shell is the fundamental interpreted language. The commands you type
at the command line are interpreted by the shell and acted on. Similarly we
can put those commands in a file and have the shell interpret them from
Shells scripts are the classic “glue” for holding together a set of programs. If
you have a set of programs which can be run from the command line and
which have to interoperate then a shell script is what you want to use.
They can also be used for “wrapping” programs. This lets you run programs
with your default parameters, or in a certain environment, without having to
manually set each parameters manually or change your environment
manually each time you run it.
Shell scripts can also be used to run certain small tasks themselves. So
long as the task is very simple, and stays very simple then this is OK. Small
scripts like this have a habit of growing with time, though, and very soon you
end up in a situation where you should be using one of the more powerful
scripting languages we will meet later.
Shell scripts are not suitable for computationally intensive work (though they
can call other programs that are, of course) and they are not suitable for
writing GUIs in (though people have tried).
Shell script
Several “shell” languages:
There are many shells. The only rational one to choose is bash, the Bourne
again shell, which is a play on the name of Simon Bourne who wrote one of
the very early shells.
The most important schism is between the “C-shell” and the “Bourne shell”
shells. Avoid C-shell; it's dying.
Shell scripting courses
Introduction to the Command Line Interface
Simple Shell Scripting for Scientists
Simple Shell Scripting for Scientists
— Further Use
“Further shell scripting”?
A word of caution is advisable here. We teach quite a bit of shell scripting in
the UCS course, but not all of it. If you ever find yourself looking for an
advanced shell scripting course then our advice is that you have left the
arena where shell script is the right tool for the job. We would recommend
Python as a better alternative.
Just because the shell can do a bit more doesn't mean that you should use
it for that. So this leads us on to the more powerful scripting languages…
High power scripting languages
import library
Both have extensive
libraries of utility functions.
Both can call out to libraries
written in other languages.
use library;
The shell, which we saw in the previous slides, was designed for launching
other programs rather than being a programming language in its own right.
We will now turn to the two primary scripting languages that were designed
for that purpose: Python and Perl.
Again, neither is directly appropriate to computationally very intensive work
but both can make use of external libraries that have been written in other
languages that are. Python, in particular, has developed a major following in
the scientific community and is no slacker for medium scale problems.
The “Swiss army knife” language
Suitable for…
Bad first language
text processing
data pre-/post-processing
small tasks
Very easy to write
unreadable code
CPAN: Comprehensive
Perl Archive Network
“There's more than
one way to do it.”
Widely used
Beware Perl geeks
Perl was written to be a replacement for the text manipulation programs
sed, awk and grep. These were simple tools designed for specific sorts of
text manipulation “in line”. They would typically sit in a pipe line of
commands and filter the data as it flowed past, a line at a time. Perl can be
used for all that but a whole lot more besides.
Perl has a very extensive support library supplied by the Comprehensive
Perl Archive Network (CPAN). Most of it does not come installed by default
but has to be added as and when you need the components. The problem is
that there are a lot of interdependencies between the elements of the CPAN
library and if you try to add one you find yourself importing a whole stack of
them. There is a utility called cpan to assist with this but it is still far from
adequate. (You can find the archive at http://www.cpan.org/.)
Perl is suitable for simple text processing but is not suitable to learn as your
first serious programming language. It is infamous for “write once read
never” code that is quite illegible to anybody other than the person who first
wrote it and is hard work even for him or her after six months. Perl takes
pride in its slogan that “there's more than one way to do it”; any task can be
tackled by Perl in many different ways. Unfortunately, if the author of a Perl
script knew one way and the reader of the script knows another the reader
will have problems understanding just what the script does. Perhaps
because of its hostility to the casual reader, Perl has attracted the worst sort
of geeks who take a perverse pride in writing dense, wholly inpenetrable
Perl code. At least it keeps them off the streets.
Suitable for…
text processing
data pre-/post-processing
small & large tasks
Built-in comprehensive
library of functions
Scientific Python library
“Batteries included”
Excellent first
Easy to write
maintainable code
The “Python way”
Very widely used
Code nesting style
is “unique”
The other powerful scripting language we will discuss is Python. Python was
written after Perl became widely used and has the benefit that its author
learned from Perl's mistakes. Despite being more recent it has caught up
and is now very common in Cambridge and the scientific community
worldwide, overtaking Perl.
Python is also very easy to learn and we recommend it as a first
programming language.
It comes with its own fairly extensive libraries which give it the slogan
“batteries included”. Most of what you need for general computing comes
with the language.
In addition the scientific community has built the “Scientific Python” (SciPy)
libraries which are in turn built on top of the “Numerical Python” (NumPy)
libraries which provide very efficient array-handling routines (written in a
language other than Python).
You can learn all about SciPy at http://www.scipy.org/.
Python lends itself very naturally to writing well structured and manageable
code. It has a style of code that is unique and which puts off some people
but it's easily dealt with in the editor. The issue is that where most languages
use open and closed brackets to clump instructions together, Python uses
levels of indentation.
Python courses
Python 3:
Introduction for Absolute Beginners
Python 3:
Introduction for Those with
Programming Experience
Python 3:
Further Topics
(self paced)
Compiled languages
No specialist
system and
scripts are not
fast enough
with no script
Use only as
a last resort
Then there are the compiled languages.
It's perhaps slightly unfair to categorise them as “last resorts” but they do
require more effort to write in and are more trouble learning than the others.
So if there is no appropriate specialist system and the Perls and Pythons of
this world aren't fast enough, or if you need to use a library written in a
compiled language that cannot be accessed through a simpler scripting
language, then you may have to use a compiled language.
I will cover three “true” compiled languages here and also Java because
from the point of what you have to do there is an explicit compilation stage.
Compiling, linking, running
source code files
text files
object files
machine code files
machine code file
I'll use C as the example in these slides, but the same applies for C++ and
We start with the source code (typically multiple files).
Compilation proper consists of taking the individual plain text source files
and turning them into machine code for the computer. Each source file,
fubar.c say, is individually converted into a machine code (or “object
code”) file called an object file, fubar.o, which implements exactly the
same functionality as the source code file. Any function calls in the source
code are translated to function calls in the machine code. If the function's
content isn't defined in the source code then it's not defined in the machine
code. And so it goes on. This is a pure “translation” process; source code is
translated, file for file, into machine code.
The next stage is called “linking”. This is the combination of the various
machine code files into a single executable file. The function definitions
defined in the various object files are tied together with their uses in other
object files. Calls to functions in external libraries are tied to the file
containing the library so that, at run-time, the operating system can hook
those function definitions in too.
No need to compile whole program
Also note that if you don't need to write your entire program in a compiled
language just because you need to write part of it that way. For example
there are hooks to call Fortran routines from Python and Python objects
which can be manipulated by Fortran. Many of the support libraries for
Python are written in languages other than Python.
No need to write the whole
program in a compiled language
C, C++ or
If there is a numerically intensive section in your program by all means write
it in C or Fortran. But don't drag the rest of the program with it. There are
tools which take C, C++ or Fortran code and create machine code libraries
that act as Python libraries (called “modules” in Python-speak).
The best for numerical work
Excellent numerical libraries
Unsuitable for everything else
Very different versions:
77, 90, 95, 2003
For numerical work there's Fortran. There still is no comparison; if you are
doing numerical work you are best off using Fortran. The best numerical
libraries are written in Fortran too.
However, it is probably the wrong choice for more or less anything else.
You also need to be careful about the various different versions of Fortran.
For a long time Fortran 77 was the standard. Now we tend to use a mix of
Fortran 90 and Fortran 95. Fortran 2003 has yet to make a serious impact.
Fortran course
Introduction to Modern Fortran
Three full days
The best for Unix (operating system) work
Excellent libraries
Superceded by C++ for applications
Memory management
The C programming language made its name by being the language used to
write the Unix operating system. As a result it is the best of the compiled
languages for interfacing with the operating system. Because it is the
language for an operating system used by developers a very large number
of libraries and programs have been written in it.
Arguably it has been superceded for application programming by C++ but it
is still very widely used.
The most important problem with C is the issue of “memory management”.
In C you are required to explicitly “free” objects that you no longer need to
return their memory space allocation to general use. Programs that don't do
this suffer from “memory leaks” and tend to grow with time. Once they get
too big for the system running them they become slow as the system has to
compensate for the amount of memory they claim to need. Finally they
collapse. Alternatively, programmers can accidentally free memory that the
program actually does require. These programs tend to die suddenly. It's
also possible to point accidentally to the wrong part of memory and get
nonsense results back.
All these memory management issues can be handled with careful
programming, but the language offers no assistance of its own.
Extension of C
Object oriented
Standard template library
General purpose language
Very hard to learn well
Strictly speaking C++ is an extension of C. However, it should be
approached as an entirely different language. “Writing C in C++” is a classic
C++'s extension over C is that it implements “object oriented” programming.
Think of objects as particularly powerful “lumps” of your program. However,
using objects is a whole extra skill that has to be learnt.
C++ also comes with a particularly useful library called the “standard
template library” which allow these objects to be manipulated in various
ways. Because this library has been written by experts it typically forms a
very useful resource to avoid you having to code the methods yourself.
All told, C++ is a decent general purpose language.
The downside, however, is the C++ is a huge language. It also has a serious
number of gotchas including its own style of memory management
C++ is easy to learn the basics of but very hard to learn well. To quote
Bjarne Stroustrup, the creator of C++, from the introduction to his book:
“How long will [leaning C++ from scratch using this book] take? … maybe 15
hours a week for 14 weeks.” (Stroustrup, Bjarne (2008). Programming:
principles and practice using C++.) That's an hour a day for every working
day in 42 weeks!
C++ books
“Thinking in C++, 2nd ed.”
Eckel, Bruce (2003)
(two volumes: 800 and 500 pages!)
“Programming: principles
and practice using C++”
Stroustrup, Bjarne (2008)
harder but better for scientific computing
From the intro to Stroustrup’s book
“How long will [leaning C++ from scratch
using this book] take? …
maybe 15 hours a week for 14 weeks.”
C++ course
Programming in Modern C++
12 lectures, 3 terms,
significant homework
Uses Stroustrup’s book
Object oriented
General purpose language
Much easier to learn and use than C++
Some poorly thought out libraries
Multiple versions:
Use >= 1.6
1.0, 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5, 1.6, 1.7
Finally I'll talk about Java. This, like C++, is a good general purpose
language and is much easier to learn and to use. It implements automatic
memory management so those difficulties are gone too.
Because it is implemented as a bye-code interpreter, interpreting the code
generated by the supposed compiler, its compiled files work across all
platforms with at least the particular version of the Java runtime system.
Some of its libraries aren't particularly well thought out, however, and there
is a good deal of difference between the various versions of the language,
though the Java maintainers do guarantee back-compatibility. If you stick to
versions 1.6 or later you should do OK.
Java courses
Object oriented programming
CL lectures
(also classes,
ask at the CL)
Scientific Computing
[email protected]
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