[This was written for my college magazine. So, many references exist that may only be understandable to people from my college. Especially the ‘II’ section is highly college specific.
Quite a few people commented that the my explanation of what Computational Science is, is quite good. I have decided to publish this in the hope that this helps someone.
Note: The article is being published as was in the magazine. No editing has been done.]
When I came to this college, this new degree had just been announced. It had all the normal things but it also gave a minor in CS. Now, CS here doesn’t stand for Computer Science, it definitely doesn’t stand for Counter Strike (Although I’m sure many in our college could get one). CS is Computational Science. Now the first thing I thought of when I heard that was, “How is that different from Computer Science?”
Computational Science is a mixture of Science, Mathematics and Computer Science.
Of course that is not going to shed any light on what Computational Science is, most courses require some level of mathematics and computer programs, and, aren’t both computer science and mathematics, sciences themselves?
Wikipedia defines Computational Science as,
Computational science (also scientific computing or scientific computation) is concerned with constructing mathematical models and quantitative analysis techniques and using computers to analyze and solve scientific problems. In practical use, it is typically the application of computer simulation and other forms of computation from numerical analysis and theoretical computer science to problems in various scientific disciplines.
Of course, Wikipedia’s famous verbose dullness is clearly visible, what is wishes to convey on the other hand is a muddled jumble of terms incomprehensible to all but few.
Let me try to explain my understanding of what computational science is. Let us go back to that picture, or rather a slightly different one. Computational Science is indeed a mixture of Science, Mathematics and Computer Science.
- It takes some field of science, say, physics, sociology, informatics, finance, economy, biology, law or linguistics.
- Then it takes a problem from that particular scientific field and constructs mathematical models (here’s the mathematics part) to try and solve these problems.
- Now, these problems can’t always be solved using qualitative analysis (deriving properties by using the laws and principles). So, we use quantitative analysis (remember the days when you would’ve actually added from 1 to 100?) to find the answer instead of analytic methods (eg: using Gauss’ amazingly important formula).
- The last part, that’s where Computer Science comes in. You write programs to solve those scientific problems for you based on those mathematical methods (and hence coming full circle). One also makes simulations to visualize the different complex problems.
- Oh, wait. What if your program takes too long to run, what if it’s too long, too complex? That’s where high-performance computing is often used; many a times included as a separate component altogether in those Venn diagrams above.
This institute understands pretty well what computational science is and has brilliantly planned out six extra courses that are meant to give the students pursuing it a pretty holistic understanding, knowledge and experience required to be called B. Tech (Honours) in ICT with a minor in CS graduates. In this semester, we second year “CS people”, as we’ve been affectionately tagged, have two courses extra: Introductory Physics and Introduction to Mathematical Methods.
Introductory Physics is something that’ll give us a glimpse of how to take a particular field (science), select problems in that field and then solve those problems. We are supposed to have an understanding of certain methods that are really portable to other fields. These aren’t like Newton’s equations that are only applicable in certain cases but more general methods/principles that can be modified to work in other fields. Introduction to Mathematical Methods is designed to equip the student with an understanding of the methodologies used to solve differential equations that somehow always tend to pop up when trying to solve these scientific problems irrespective of the field.
All of you who have ever been exposed to electronics/communication should know how astonishingly different ideal and practical life can be. Apparently the actual process of providing a CS degree also suffers from similar issues. Since the very start we’ve been suffering from issues of some sort or the other.
At the start of this semester a reshuffling of students was supposed to happen, placing willing students in the CS group and “relegating” the “ineligible” students to the ICT group. That this process might take a week or so can be explained away as delay caused due to changes in grades. But by the time the regrouping had happened the first in-semester examinations were almost on top of the newly shifted students. Further, the regrouping wasn’t affecting the lab/tutorial timetables. This wouldn’t have been a problem this semester as CS people don’t have any extra labs/tutorials. Nonetheless, this wasn’t easy on the students either, as it caused a lot of students to have many days that would be packed from early morning to six in the evening with just the lunch break free. This problem has, thankfully, at the time of writing been solved.
All of these were problems that at most caused a lot of discomfort (although they seemed a lot more then). Something that caused more than discomfort was the first in-semester examination. Examinations are never easy, they are supposed to test a person’s understanding of a particular subject, at least get an idea of the relative standings among the students. Examinations in DA are an event unlike any other. When the examination is to evaluate the relative levels of students, and you put the CS group together and try to figure out their relative standing, it will be an even more interesting event. What made this particular in-sem one of the most interesting thing for us “CS people” was having to give seven exams in three days. We gave three exams on the first day. Yes, we did. We did it!
Well, my use of the word interesting to describe those examinations is not really correct. It was tiring, it was exhausting, it was an anxious time. One might think that with relative grading and with everyone being in the same situation, it shouldn’t affect us a lot. That for the most part would be true, except, we had to give three exams in a single day. Have you done that? Three exams in a day? It is not a pleasant experience. It was overwhelming, to put it mildly.
We had a “heavy” course (System Software) followed by both the CS courses. Please note that both these courses are happening for the first time and we have no idea what to expect. Also, the next day we have Analog and Digital Communications and Analog Circuits. These courses bringing back memories (not the nostalgic kind) of certain previous courses (full of topics that we knew (not really) but have forgotten, some that we never understood). With Fourier transforms and Duality theorems and Hilbert transforms, ADC isn’t an easy thing to be preparing for after already having given three exams. Wait, we also have to prepare for System Software at some point. Also, we don’t know anything about the paper style for the Physics course. We don’t know many of the methods to solve differential equations. Oh, there’s an assignment due in that course isn’t there? So we’ll hopefully know more once we do that. But that still leaves a few courses remaining. I think we have a probability course and that humanities course, environmental sciences or environmental studies, to study for.
There was this point, when we didn’t know which exams we’d already given. We were studying more than a couple of things at the same time and we (was it just me?) didn’t remember that we gave the System Software exam yesterday morning. Think having to study for so many exams, each impacting your grades, each grade impacting your pointer, the pointer impacting your future. Each single minute of study for any of these courses might mean a job, a chance to study further or just a number. Do you feel like your thoughts are mixed up? Did you feel like I’ve stopped making sense? Well, this is how we gave the seven exams. I almost forgot to mention that the “normal ICT” people didn’t have three exams the first day, they could study for ADC and Analog circuits. They probably got at least 2 hours more to do that. Are you starting to feel overwhelmed yet? If your answer is no, then I believe that your imagination is lacking. Seriously, it isn’t an easy thing. Very few managed to scrape out enough brainpower to write those exams in a sensible manner.
I feel like I should apologize for the previous two very unstructured paragraphs, I was just trying to recreate the way most of us felt during those three days which felt more like a week to us. The courses are brilliant, I really like the idea of being able to use all of this to actually solve some real world problem one day. To be able to visualize, simulate and calculate the exact solution to something that human minds couldn’t ‘just solve’. But the exams are taxing. They aren’t easy in normal conditions but for us “CS people” I suppose we’ll just need to listen to what Kenji Miyazawa (just a random guy) says and “… embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.”
The exams were a time of hardship and pain. This battle has been won, but the war against races on.We will not quit, until all of the exams are over. There is no fate, but what we make.