09 Jan 2015 "No formula without an app"

Mark Abbott at Fingertip Scientific is much more aware than I am of what it going on "out there" in terms of how the computing landscape is changing. He sent me a link to a video of a talk by Bret Victor at Worrydream. Victor has been there and done that in terms of coding and could have just carried on being a brilliant coder. Instead he searched for a driving principle that should inform his working life. In the short-term the implication of the principles is that instead of accepting that there is a divide between, say, coding and running of the code and accepting that coding is a symbolic activity done only with a keyboard, coding and its implementations should be dynamic processes involving as much of the human as possible. His awesome videos show the sorts of things that he means, even though he is the first to say that they fall short of what he's really striving for.

In one of his talks he asks the audience to think of their own guiding principle. Although I would never have thought in such passionate terms, looking back, I've always had a sense that hand-waving scientific explanations (all too common in industry) were never good enough, but also that mere formulae were useless (to me at least) because they were dead on the page. I always had to bring them to life with whatever tools were at hand - crude programmable calculators, mainframes, PCs and, finally, Javascript apps.

Generally these were specific for the company and in some cases were money-making bits of complicated software. But now I have the luxury of deciding what to give away or, rather, give back to the community which has taught me so much. So AbbottApps are all free, are all the best I can do with my current capabilities and in every case take a key bit of science with a key formula and bring that formula to life in a way that enhances my own understanding of the science and, I hope allows others to better understand what is going on.

I've also written 2 books, both of which embrace the same principle. Every equation in each book is brought to life rather than being stuck on a page. The nanocoatings book used a big Excel workbook as I didn't have Javascript capabilities at the time. That will shortly change as a Practical Nanocoatings site will complement an eBook version so the reader can click in the book and go straight to the app. My Adhesion Science book is due out soon and is linked closely to Practical Adhesion. I still value the book format as it allows an extended chain of thought in a manner that, at least for me, is not possible via web pages. It also forces me to work much harder on the whole story. With a bunch of apps I can slide issues under the carpet; that's not possible with a book.

So I now have an answer to the question of what is my guiding principle. It's not a grand answer, but it works for me:

No science without a formula, no formula without an app

My problem now is that those glances into what Victor is doing with formulae, data and interaction show the limitations of my current apps. I'm not ashamed of them because already they allow the user to dynamically explore the meaning of a formula. But how much better they could be!

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