Ten Computer Codes that Transformed Science

From Fortran to arXiv.org, these advances in programming and platforms sent biology, climate science and physics into warp speed.

From astronomy to zoology, behind every great scientific finding of the modern age, there is a computer. Michael Levitt, a computational biologist at Stanford University in California who won a share of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on computational strategies for modelling chemical structure, notes that today’s laptops have about 10,000 times the memory and clock speed that his lab-built computer had in 1967, when he began his prizewinning work. “We really do have quite phenomenal amounts of computing at our hands today,” he says. “Trouble is, it still requires thinking.”

Enter the scientist-coder. A powerful computer is useless without software capable of tackling research questions — and researchers who know how to write it and use it. “Research is now fundamentally connected to software,” says Neil Chue Hong, director of the Software Sustainability Institute, headquartered in Edinburgh, UK, an organization dedicated to improving the development and use of software in science. “It permeates every aspect of the conduct of research.”

Scientific discoveries rightly get top billing in the media. But Nature this week looks behind the scenes, at the key pieces of code that have transformed research over the past few decades.

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