Featured in Five is a monthly section where we pose five questions to a Computing Reviews featured reviewer. Here are the responses from our current featured reviewer, John Butcher (University of Auckland, New Zealand).
Q: What is the most important thing that's happened in computing in the past 10 years?
A: In the numerical modeling of differential equations, the traditional view has been that errors should be kept small. Within the last 10 years, this view has been reassessed and the current paradigm, known as geometric integration, is that overall accuracy has to be balanced against the adherence to, and preservation of, structural properties.
Q: By the end of your career, where do you think computer science will have taken us? What are you working on that might contribute toward that?
A: It is too late to answer this properly because I retired 13 years ago. As a mathematical scientist, still working part-time, I have always used computers as tools in the service of my trade. But even for the best algebraic manipulators, and related tools, I am always fighting to get the answers I want without being obstructed by the very software that should be helping me. I hope, as time goes by, that computational aids to mathematicians become more and more convenient and easy to use. Otherwise I hope, to some extent at least, that computers leave us alone.
Q: Who is your favorite historical figure? Why?
A: I want to mention two historical figures who are favorites in different ways. First, there is Robert Burns, the peasant poet who rejected the idea that some people are born better than others. "Then let us pray that come it may, (As come it will for all that,) That Man to Man, the world o'er, Shall brothers be for all that."
It is widely believed that nobody can really contribute to mathematics, or any branch of science, unless they are nurtured within a rich scientific tradition. But Srinivasa Ramanujan could not even gain entry to a university. He taught himself everything he knew, and made original, unique and unsurpassed contributions to the mathematics of the 20th century.
Q: If you weren't working in the computer science field, what would you be doing instead?
A: I would have retired from whatever I had been doing the last 50 or 60 years. I would be reading books, listening to music and enjoying other aspects of a contented life.
Q: What is your favorite type of music?
A: Many types of music, from Late Renaissance to Baroque and through to the Classical and Romantic periods, are important to me. While it is impossible to specify an absolute favorite, there is a special place for the Italian language operas of Mozart, especially "The Marriage of Figaro." Within the sumptuous music and the witty and satirical text is the revolutionary idea that the days of feudalism were soon to be over.