Big numbers

20 Nov 2014

In an addendum to my earlier post from today, one more thought about transitions, not national (Canada to USA) but disciplinary (math to scientific computing). While I’ve soaked up an enormous amount of new information during my first week on the job, I’ve realized that one of the stranger things to grasp is actual, concrete quantities, especially when they’re large. I’m trained as a mathematician, and after a certain point, mathematical quantities are binary - finite or infinite (I have a vivid memory of a complex analysis lecture where the board contained a number line with three values: 0, 1, and infinity). In that world, the difference between 10 and 1000 is immaterial and the question “how big” is only asked to determine if the object in question is in fact without finite size.

But in science, particularly scientific computing, quantities are suddenly real! “Very large” does not mean either infinite (and thus of equal “size” to similar sets) or finite (and thus trivial). Instead, there are literally “millions” of data points and “thousands” of jobs and “hundreds of thousands” of compute hours and “x terabytes” of data or “y gigabytes” of RAM. No more hand-waving and assigning vague quantities to a variable; it’s old-school numbers from now on!

reflections » math, computing, culture, work, RCF,

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