Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Technological Determinism and the near demise of IRAF

I’m reading the book “a world without email” by Cal Newport (it’s probably an aspirational title) and he introduces the term “technological determinism” ie when a piece of new technology steers human behavior rather than the other way round. Often in unpredictable ways. Unintended consequences of new technology adaptation. 

Of course there is a corollary in astronomy: the discontinuation of python 2. 

Python 2 is what kept the IRAF tools pyraf alive for many of us. The pyraf wrapper allowed us to simply call a bunch of trusted tools. No need to learn how to manipulate images as numpy arrays, imcalc will do this for you. But then the python project decided to discontinue support for python 2 and everyone had to move to python 3. Grudgingly I did so too. 

This happened while the astropy package had not yet quite reached the maturity of toolset as IRAF. In some ways it still feels like it is catching up (I'd like to rotate this image around this RA and Dec, how do I reduce this spectrum etc). 

OTOH python 3 and astropy were much more optimized for database manipulation. So student projects and the science as a whole much more became focused on that. Part of a drive away from individual sources and more the study of populations from large surveys, accessible from servers. Etc etc. 

Not a bad thing. And mostly something that was happening anyway. But I am left wondering what else it drove. 

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