March 1, 2011

Technology Anachronisms in Science

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

MacDiff program running in a Mac Classic environment emulator on my Windows XP netbook, January 2011.

Ever since I starting doing geology research back in 2003, I have encountered technology anachronisms in science. I find these technology anachronisms intriguing, humorous, and- sometimes- frustrating. Often, the challenge of using technology in science is not keeping up with the latest-and-greatest technology but rather remembering or learning to use very old, outdated technology.

What is a technology anachronism? Basically, this is a piece of technology (e.g. a computer, a data reduction program, a mass spectrometer) that is old and out-of-date– sometimes wildly so– but which is still in regular use for any of a variety of reasons. A good example of a technology anachronism is the soon-to-be retired Space Shuttle. My senior year of high school, I remember reading a 2002 New York Times article titled “For parts, NASA Boldy Goes… on eBay.” Basically, in 2002 (and probably in 2011) the Space Shuttle was still using early 1980s computer technology. In order to keep the shuttle computers in good repair, replacement parts were sometimes needed. The problem, of course, was that 1980s computer parts were hard to come by in 2002. Thus, NASA would buy replacement computer parts on eBay and any other place they could scavenge them from.

So why did NASA go on eBay rather than just outfit the space shuttle with new computer systems? Well, you’ll have to ask NASA about that for an official answer, and I’m sure they did make some updates to the shuttle’s computer technology. However, I imagine that designing a space shuttle– even just part of a space shuttle– is such a long, rigorous process that it is more practical to maintain the outdated but tried-and-trusted technology rather than overhaul with new technology that would require significant energy to design, test, and implement.

About a year after I read the NASA article, I started participating in science research in a geochemistry lab down at Florida State University (FSU). I went down to FSU to work as a summer intern. For my project, I measured hafnium (Hf) and neodymium (Nd) isotopes in some post-shield basalts from Hawaii. I measured Hf isotopes on a very old mass spectrometer* that had been specially modified for the task. The computer that was hooked up to the mass spectrometer was early to mid 90s in vintage. Much of the running of the mass spectrometer was done by hand (physically pushing in the samples, initial settings and calibration), but the computer did have a program for measuring the isotopes. The computer program was difficult to use and full of glitches. I forget what code was used, but I think it was an old FORTRAN code that had been programmed by a graduate student or technician way back when. The results came out on an old dot matrix printer with the holes on the edges to move the paper along.

More recently, I have encountered a technology anachronism in the software program I am using to identify minerals in X-ray diffraction (XRD) scans of rock powders. To identify minerals, I am using a program called MacDiff. This is a great XRD analysis program– it’s free and works really well for basic mineral identification. There are other, very expensive programs with larger mineral databases and more capability. However, I don’t require this much analysis for my thesis, so MacDiff is fine. There is just one problem with the MacDiff software: the program has not been updated since about 2000. The program also only works on a Mac, but even that wouldn’t be a huge problem if it worked on a recent Mac. Actually, the program can only be run in the Mac Classic environment.

There are two options for working with MacDiff. The first option is finding an old Mac computer that can run the Mac Classic environment. This is not too difficult as many scientists have old Mac computers lying about, and worst case scenario you can always buy an old Mac fairly cheaply off eBay. The second option, which I decided to pursue, is to set up an emulator environment so that you can run the Mac Classic environment in a window on a modern computer. Setting up an emulator is a little bit tricky (well, for me anyway), but I had a computer savvy friend help me figure it out. Running MacDiff through an emulator works well with just a few problems. The emulator tends to crash if you do certain things in certain orders, but I’ve managed to figure out ways around the problems I’ve had with the emulator. I really wish that a scientist or programmer would update the MacDiff code so that it would run on a modern computer, but that coding represents a significant time investment, so it probably won’t happen anytime soon.

I have encountered countless more technology anachronisms in scientific research. In my experience, there are several reasons why technology anachronisms exist:

1. Money:
There can be a high cost in replacing technology. Scientists cannot afford to replace very expensive equipment– such as million dollar mass spectrometers– often. For example, here at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution there is an ion probe** that is from the late 1970s. There is also a newer, fancier ion probe. However, since ion probes are so expensive and in demand, the old 1970s one is still run regularly.

2. Time and Effort:
Replacing technology and becoming used to new technology takes time, which scientists have far too little of these days. Sometimes, it is faster and easier to keep the old technology limping along rather than take the time to transition to new technology. As an example, if an extensive code has been written in outdated FORTRAN, many scientists prefer to keep working with the pre-existing FORTRAN code rather than take the time and effort to re-write the code in a new language.

3. Comfort:
Humans, scientists included, are often resistant to change. Like NASA space shuttle operators, scientists like working with tried-and-trusted technology. Sometimes, this means clinging onto a computer or code or machine longer than they should. Older scientists in particular can sometimes be unfairly critical and suspicious of new technology.

4. Compatibility:
Sometimes, using older technology is really the only option. For instance, if you are using an old ion probe you may need to use an old computer in order to be able to talk to that old ion probe. Similarly, if you are using a group piece of technology– such as MacDiff– that you cannot update on your own, then you may be stuck with old technology unless the whole research community makes an effort to update the technology.

There will always be anachronistic technology in science, if only because the pace of technology development is so rapid these days.This is especially true when it comes to computers. The day you buy your shiny new laptop, this laptop is already out-of-date. New and better computers and computer-like gadgets– smartphones, electronic book readers, tablet PCs– are constantly being released. New software programs (Microsoft products, internet browsers, blogging platforms) come out every couple of years, and updates to these commonly-used software programs come out all the time.

So, whatever technology you purchase for your science, it’s likely to be out of date by the time you install it in your laboratory.

*For mass spectrometry geeks, the machine was the Lamont Isolab 54 Secondary Ionization Mass Spectrometer (SIMS).

**For ion probe geeks, the older ion probe is the IMS 3f. WHOI also has a IMS 1280.