August 10, 2018, by Dr. Meghan Gray

Noah Hardwicke at the 2018 Wolfram Summer School

Guest post by Noah Hardwicke, one of our MSci Physics undergraduates. Noah has previously blogged about the importance of creativity in both science and art, and here reflects on his first year at Nottingham as well as the stimulating experience he had recently as a participant in the 2018 Wolfram Summer School. 

My first year at Nottingham physics has come to an end, and this post recounts the two events that bookended it. The first was a lecture given by Philip Moriarty at the beginning of term that encouraged a maturity in my scientific thinking – an extension from merely doing science like a mouse in a maze, as is the mentality taught at A Level, to formulating my own opinions about the practice and philosophy of science as a search for truth rather than a means to an end. I’m sure the majority of my opinions formed over the past year are at least partly misguided, but their formation involves an open mindedness that hopefully fosters reflection, development and a reduction of naivety, rather than misplaced confidence in one’s own beliefs. Obviously one tends to recognise in retrospect such a shift in their thinking, and at the beginning of the year I was excited to be immersed in an academic environment full of new ideas and information, completely blind and unconcerned as to what direction this may take. Aptly then, Philip’s lecture was about chaos theory.

This lecture remains particularly memorable to me for several reasons. In a general sense, it indicated how progression relies on plastic, open thought, where the only authority in science is experimental evidence, and the willingness to suspend current ideas can lead to the connection of seemingly disparate concepts. For the example of chaos theory, we were shown how ideas evolved from a ‘clockwork universe’, where nature is entirely deterministic and computable given sufficient resources, to a chaotic picture of the world where systems exhibit divergent behaviour for almost identical initial conditions, and how these non-linear systems relate to escape time fractals. I assume this lecture was intended to be somewhat open ended, especially seeing as we weren’t examined on it, where concepts far beyond the mathematical comprehension of a first year were introduced to seed curiosity and individual reading and research. That’s certainly how I found it and I am glad we had such a lecture at the start of the year, for the investigations stemming from this lecture developed my education further than the curriculum did – as should be the case in a university education.

The immediately influential part of Philip’s lecture was a piece of advice. “If you can express a system in code, then you must understand how it works,” is something close to what he said. Prior to this year, my experience of programming languages was primitive. I had used Wolfram Language (Mathematica) for data analysis, but had not realised the vast scope of problems to which programming can be applied. It is now true that programming languages are as important as mathematics in the discourse of science, and that computation is a tool adept at tackling virtually any problem regardless of the subject.Philip’s advice made it immediately clear that programming is a more powerful and general tool than I had realised. This excited me and I spent much of the year programming; indeed I went from novice to Wolfram Summer School student in nine months. This is the heart of university education. Curriculum specifics should come second to your own development as a scientist, where your advancement is propelled by your own curiosity. This is the departure from A Level; the paradigm shift from sheep to seeker of truth.

* * * * *

It is now the end of the year and I have returned from the 2018 Wolfram Summer School at Bentley University in Massachusetts. This is an intensive three-week course, where students work on projects under the guidance of mentors (Wolfram scientists and engineers), including Stephen Wolfram. The environment is a concentrate of interest, curiosity and enthusiasm, where a self-selected group of academics immerse themselves in learning and collaboration.

People come to the summer school with varying skills in the Wolfram Language, so the first week is dedicated to writing a ‘computational essay’ to ensure a base degree of familiarity with the language. The concept of a computational essays is interesting, it is a piece of writing in which code is used to facilitate the illustration and communication of points. This is where the Wolfram Language particularly shines for me; the notebook environment is about the best way of communicating ideas succinctly and clearly, where several diagrams and explanations can be condensed into a single Manipulate object and snippets of code can be changed and evaluated by the reader to clarify and further their understanding. Furthermore, the choice of essay topic was ours, so mine sprang out of a conversation about which I knew very little, but could see a way of applying physics that I did know. I spent the first week reading papers about evolution, mass extinctions and weather systems, none of which I’d studied before and bore no relation to my university studies.

Weekdays involved lectures from 9am until 4pm, and computational essays and projects are worked on “whenever you’re not in lectures”. Everyone, including the mentors, ate together, so meal times always hosted many discussions on topics from quantum mechanics to politics. The summer school attracts people from diverse backgrounds, be it computer science, mathematics, biology or humanities, so conversations often involved ideas and fields that were completely new to me. The experience was incredible, both from an academic and social perspective. Stephen Wolfram clearly enjoys playing a central role in the summer school, and each of our projects were discussed and finalised with him. Again, because of the versatility of the Wolfram Language, which now has over 5000 built-in functions, projects were enormously varied. 

Most people worked in a communal space, where mentors were available (often until the early hours) and students would help each other. It was a collaborative environment like no other I have experienced. The school closed with each person giving a short presentation about their project, followed by a poster session. 

The amount of material I learnt about programming, physics, mathematics and scientific thought and philosophy was considerable, and it will take time to process and connect it all up. I’d therefore like to end this post simply with a link to the amazing work people did at the summer school. Each project was the result of total immersion in an environment of interest, enthusiasm and passion. 

Posted in Student ResearchStudy AbroadSummer projectsUndergraduates