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FEATURE ARTICLE

Science in 2006

A former IBM chief scientist looks ahead from 1986 into the twenty-first century

Lewis Branscomb

Complex Instrumentation

Despite the enormous power of the new instrumentation, without which none of the fantastic new experiments could be done, many scientists were a little nostalgic about the old days. (At least the chemists, biologists, and atomic and molecular physicists were. High-energy physicists, astronomers, and oceanographers had long since been committed to complex facilities requiring extremely sophisticated engineering; that's why those fields were called "big science.")

They could remember when, if you were clever, you could take apart the sensor system in your commercial instrumentation, make some innovative changes, and squeeze out another factor of two in resolution or sensitivity. Or write a new data-analysis routine that discriminated better against unwanted signals. The engineers from the instrument company always showed their gratitude, and incorporated many of these good ideas in the next model. Now, in 2006, the signal-processing and analysis capabilities of the instrument were so complex and sophisticated that you had to call in applied mathematicians and software engineers to make a modification. And you needed the approval of the instrument company even for this, because any change to the system would void its warranty.








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