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ATPM 2.12
December 1996





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Segments: Slices From the Macintosh Life

by Neale Monks,

Letter on Education

One of the great surprises of the Macintosh publishing world is how little record there is of the extent to which scientists use Macs.

I'm a palaeontologist (just like Ross from "Friends"), and like a many others here at the British Museum of Natural History in London, have chosen to use a Mac *in the face of both received wisdom and corporate policy*. Why is this?

Partly, for the same reasons that other professionals, given a choice, buy into Macintosh. If you have a Windows computer, chances are that you won't have the time to get to really understand the machine. And, mostly, training is minimal, you are shown how to fire up MS Word or whatever, but certainly are not taught all about the system software. So when it goes wrong, even for a minor reason, you're in the dark; and its time to call your friendly neighbourhood IT manager. And IT managers the world over "are too busy right now...".

So you get a Mac that is more or less idiot proof, and when it does something screwy (and they do, whatever Apple would like to think!) it is usually a five minute fix...Mac users seem genetically predisposed to help each other. I guess it is the minority thing...we gotta stick together, guys!

But more important, especially once you have the machine, is that the software is very well suited to scientific chores. People outside of science might be surprised how much typing and graphic design is involved even in hard-core, lots of numbers research. A typical paper will need to be laid out almost exactly in the style of the intended journal; and the Mac is the WYSIWYG computer par excellence. On top of that, most scientists need to do both the line-art and photographic artwork for the publishers. And what else but a Mac would you choose for that? The ease with which CD drives and scanners can be plugged in, and then the simplicity of transferring graphics files from one format to another; or even from one application to another. E-mailing files to colleagues thousands of miles problem! And God bless PICTs...have you ever tried to paste a chart into Word for Windows!

And even more surprising, there are even fields of science where the software is Macintosh orientated. My own field, taxonomy, is partly based around a process called cladistics; and here the Mac predominates. This is partly because the results, which are graphical, are easily transported from the task specific software and into the off-the-shelf text and graphics packages we all know and love.

As the Macintosh has become more powerful, 3D rendering has become a natural tool for scientists who have distorted or theoretical data they want to investigate or display to a wider audience. A friend of mine uses his PowerMacs to produce 3D reconstructions of fossils compressed flat in rocks. He can even turn the model into a QuickTime movie, allowing colleagues to see rotating models of the subject on their own desktops.

The PowerMacs have even managed to ingratiate their way into the most solidly PC and UNIX centres. In fact, the geology department at the university where I teach from time to time has just bought a few for map-making and logging field data. The last Macs they bought were SEs in the late 1980's.

Despite all this, the latest questionaire to the Apple Expo here at London didn't even have a box for me to tick to say "I am a scientist." Its like we're a backwater. The reality is that many scientists are natural Mac advocates, pushing both the technology and the image. And we're also some of the keenest users of the Internet, witness the tremendous vitality and diversity of the scientific mailing lists, Web pages and gopher holes. So lets all look forward to seeing some reviews of scientific software and achievements!

All the very best, and good luck with ATPM!

[apple graphic] Neale Monks

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