Scientists love MacBooks (true) – but what about you?

When users get freedom to choose


Sysadmin Blog I've done a few Apple in the enterprise articles recently, and it has set me thinking. Despite Apple's obvious success in a number of areas, a fair amount of nerdly vitriol is spewed at Macs.

I have had a few unkind words to say about them*, but the arguments can get quite heated. Some of the particular debate points used by the pro-Apple crowd got me interested enough to investigate.

I really cut my teeth on computer networks in the early 90s. Right around the time Apple went mad and the "Mac versus PC" wars turned into "the majority" versus "an ever decreasing, but fanatically religious minority".

As such, I've typically dismissed anything an Apple fanperson has to say about computers somewhat like I tune out what fundamentalist Christians have to say about evolution or deniers have to say about the elementary physics of photon absorption and emittance.

Just because they're fanatics, however, doesn't mean every point they make is wrong. Even a blind pig will truffle every now and again.

For science!

When fanpersons get really into it one of the most valid (at least to me) defences of their beloved Macs is the way in which they have been embraced by the scientific community. This is frequently claimed, but what evidence is there for this phenomenon?

In truth, it's easy to find. I remember watching with nerds around the world the "9 minutes of terror" as Curiosity touched down on Mars. Although the control room didn't have a whole lot of laptops about, during the live event there were many cutaways to a conference room full of commenters and NASA brass, and the conference table was covered in MacBooks.

I also remember huddling around the streaming video anxiously awaiting confirmation of "five sigma", and the discovery of the Higgs Boson. Apart from the announcement itself, one important thing stood out: all the scientists, students and NASA staffers were using MacBooks!

Glowing white apples overwhelmingly dominated every other type of notebook. Before the presenter started speaking the auditorium for the CERN announcement (and, to be fair, pretty much every CERN announcement is like this) might as well have been an Apple commercial.

So, why are the smartest people in the world using MacBooks? What do they know that we don't? Are the fanpeople right when they claim this as undeniable evidence of Mac superiority? The answer is my trademark when dealing with all things tech: "it depends".

Just like you and me

An important thing to bear in mind for this particular conversation point is that having an IQ of 160 doesn't mean you can fix a car, a computer, or the household plumbing. Even within disciplines really smart people can become pretty specialised, so I don't see where it's rational to expect a particle physicist to be particularly conversant with computers, except as a hobby.

I happen to make a hobby out of neuropharmacology (and by extension neurobiology and neurochemistry), but it all falls apart for me when I get too deep into a discussion about endocrinology, despite the important effects of the limbic system on the endocrine system. My knowledge ends at neuroendocrinology and a gastroenterologist can talk rings around me about microvilli and the relevance of a diversity of intestinal flora.

To my friends and family who don't share my hobby, I "know lots about medicine". I've tried to explain the difference between knowing lots about medicines and the various things that an actual practicing doctor has to learn, but to no avail; it's all the same to them.

To a certain extent, I think that as systems administrators this is how we look at scientists using computers. To start with, we homogenise them into a single lump ("scientists"). Secondly, even though we're trained sysadmins with years of experience under our belts, we usually haven't' the foggiest clue in the 12th nether hell what those crazy boffins are up to on those computers. It's mysterious and spooky, thus they must know something we don't.

The truth of it is that most scientists aren't computer experts. They see the computer as nothing more than a tool. They make their decisions based on the same factors as every user: they need something that will run the applications relevant to them, and they want the least frustrating tool possible.

Next page: Work, damn you!

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