The code for better science

Published in Physics World, 1 Dec 2015

In a recent survey of more than 1100 astronomers, almost half have received little or no software training, despite 90% writing at least some of their own code. Jon Cartwright reports on the latest programming-language trends and the call for basic programming training as standard

Ivelina Momcheva finds she spends a lot of her time programming. Whether it is to analyse data or to produce figures for papers, she sits at her keyboard at Yale University in New Haven, US, writing line after line of code. Despite it being a major part of her job, however, she has never received any formal training in software development. “Once I started graduate school, I mostly taught myself,” she says. “I picked up a few recommended books, took some online classes and looked at code written by colleagues.”
Momcheva’s Yale colleague Erik Tollerud has a slightly different story. The son of a professor in computer science, he took a computing course as an undergraduate. With that background, he was better prepared than Momcheva – though perhaps not by much – for a life in modern astronomy. So are Momcheva and Tollerud typical of today’s astronomers – some trained a little in software development, others not at all? In December last year the pair attended the .Astronomy 6 (pronounced “dot astronomy”) conference in Chicago, US, where they found a lot of their fellow astronomers debating how software is used, and about the current levels of training. Seeing there was no consensus, the pair decided to find out for themselves by conducting an informal survey.
The results, based on responses from more than 1100 astronomers at all career levels, reveal just how ill-prepared astronomers are for what constitutes much of their working life. Some 90% of the respondents write at least some of their own software, according to the survey, yet fewer than one in 10 have received “substantial” training for it. About half said they have received “little” training, while 43% say they have had none at all (arXiv:1507.03989). […]

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