To most outsiders software used by CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) is surely just one tool among many, but not according to an unnamed but apparently well-informed insider who has argued that the project’s use of Linux was more than established convention.
“I don’t see any CERN-related things here, so I want to mention how Linux (specifically, Scientific Linux and Ubuntu) had a vital role in the discovery of the new boson at CERN,” said the source on Reddit, sparking supporting comments from others involved in the field.
“In terms of data analysis, Windows could be used in principle. We could also use some type of device that manipulates symbols on a strip of tape according to a simple table of rules. Linux is used because it is most appropriate for the job.”
The systems referred to are those used to sift through the vast amounts of data that are output from the accelerators in search of meaningful signals that might be new particles.
The identity of the poster, d3pd, can’t be confirmed but the discussion that follows appears genuine. CERN’s use of Linux (indeed the use of open source software across education, research and science) is long established, as CERN’s support site underlines.
“I work primarily in physics, not in computing, so I doubt that I am able to argue very competently for Linux over something such as BSD,” admitted the source before rounding off the hymn to Linux in science with a final flourish.
“The fact is that Linux was the operating system used in the overwhelming majority of the analyses contributing to the discovery, so, in that sense I think I am justified in claiming that Linux played a vital role in the discovery.”
Far beyond the bounds of conventional scientific experiment and observation, predicting things that turn out to be true matters because knowledge of such complex phenomena is increasingly inferred. If inferred models turn out to work then such hypothesising isn’t sophisticated guessing after all and so physicists can continue to churn through their vast scads of data looking for new discoveries.
Sadly, the Higgs Boson is not a ‘God particle’ any more than any other particle can be said to have a divine connection; but it might be the elusive phenomenon of nature that helps cement Linux’s reputation as science’s best friend.