Python advocacy in scientific computation

Terry Hancock hancock at
Sat Mar 4 17:46:46 CET 2006

On 3 Mar 2006 17:33:31 -0800
"sturlamolden" <sturlamolden at> wrote:
> 1. Time is money. Time is the only thing that a scientist
> cannot afford to lose. Licensing fees for Matlab is not an
> issue. If we can spend $1,000,000 on specialised equipment
> we can pay whatever Mathworks or Lahey charges as well.
> However, time spent programming are an issue. (As are time
> time spend learning a new language.)

"that man speaks for himself!" ;-)

Seriously, this depends on the lab. If you're working for
a monster pharmaceutical corp or on a military contract on
"applied" science (meaning there is a definitely payback
expected), then you likely have money to burn. People
working in a academic or non-profit lab on "unsexy"/"pure"
science, likely don't.

Remember that site-licensing usually works on some kind of
"per seat" basis (even if you are lucky enough *not* to have
a "license server" that constantly tracks usage in order to
deny service if and when N+1 users try to use the system,
the fee the site fee is still based on the number
of expected users).  The last science facility I worked at
was in considerable debt to a proprietary scientific
software producer and struggling to pay the bills.  The
result was that they had fewer licenses than they wanted
and many people simply couldn't use the software when they

I'm not sure what happened in the end, because I left for
unrelated reasons before all of that got sorted out, but
Python (with a suitable array of add-ons) was definitely on
the short-list of replacement software (and partly because I
was trying to sell people on it, of course).

In fact, if I had one complaint about Python, it was the
"with a suitable array of add-ons" caveat. The proprietary
alternative had all of that rolled into one package (abeit
it glopped into one massive and arcane namespace), whereas
there was no "Python Data Language" or whatever that
would include all that in one named package that everyone
could recognize (I suppose SciPy is trying to achieve that).

For similar reasons, Space Telescope Science Institute
decided to go full tilt into python development -- they
created "numarray" and "pyraf", and they are the ones paying
for the "chaco" development contract.

Which brings up another point -- whereas with proprietary
software (and stuff written using it, like the IDL astronomy
library) can leave you with an enormous investment in stuff
you can't use, free software development can often be just
as cheap, and you get to keep what you make.

At one point, I was seriously thinking about trying to write
some kind of translator to convert those IDL libs into
python libs (quixotic of me?).

So why rent when you can own?

Scientists certainly do understand all that bit about
"seeing further" because you're "standing on the shoulders
of giants".  With proprietary software, the giants keep
getting shot out from under you, which tends to make things
a bit harder to keep up with.


Terry Hancock (hancock at
Anansi Spaceworks

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