Sunday, November 02, 2008

Examining tool complexity

Tools and the science findings they enable evolve in lock-step. Many tools have been quietly transforming into complex entities of their own over the last several years. Exemplar contemporary tools on the landscape include many forms of the microscope, mass spectrometer, chromatograph, flow cytometer, and telescope.

The complex tools of today involve a hardware component together with many layers of software
for operating, enumerating and analyzing. The analytics software layer has become critical as mathematical modeling, simulation, automation, statistical computation and informatics are expected features. For example, the new biology extends traditional enumeration and experimentation with the additional steps of mathematical modeling and software simulation, and building test biological machines in the lab.

The increasing complexity of tools means that it is not possible to just wait for hardware speedups anymore, software is the weakest link (open source collaboration helps but only modestly), mathematical advances have been figuring most prominently and the cultural divide between hard science professionals and computer science, mathematics and statistical experts inhibits progress.

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