This month, our Back to Basics article may seem straightforward to some readers and completely foreign to others, depending on when you went to school. “Step Into the Digital Age with Python” by Jacob Albrecht (Sage Bionetworks) introduces readers to the many ways that the Python programming language can enhance chemical engineering work. Examples in this article include speeding basic data collection and analysis tasks, drawing quantitative results from publicly available data repositories, and stepping into the world of machine learning and deep neural networks.
Python was first released in 1991, but I had little to no exposure to this programming language in high school or college. In fact, the first programming language that I learned in my junior year of high school was Microsoft’s Visual Basic, which was also first released in 1991. One of Visual Basic’s advantages was its ability to enable rapid development of graphical user interface (GUI) applications. For my final project that year, I created a restaurant menu ordering system — well before the days of Seamless and Uber Eats. The final release of the original Visual Basic occurred in 1998, and in 2008, Microsoft stopped supporting the language altogether. In my freshman year of college, I spent a semester learning the fundamentals of MATLAB, a proprietary programming language developed by MathWorks.
Today, if you asked me to program in either Visual Basic or MATLAB, I likely wouldn’t know where to start. In many ways, learning a programming language is much like learning a natural language — without constant use, familiarity and memory of the language often declines. However, unlike spoken and written languages, programming languages are born, evolve, and can fade to obscurity in a matter of years.
Python, however, is one programming language that seems to have longevity. Although it’s difficult to determine the total number of Python programmers in the world, it is estimated that the count today is anywhere from 3 million to 8 million based on GitHub and Stack Overflow trends. And, Python is experiencing a recent surge in popularity. “The growing popularity of Python among chemical engineers can be attributed to the rapidly maturing capabilities external packages are adding to the language,” writes Albrecht.
A few other factors may have contributed to Python’s growth. Unlike Visual Basic, which can only operate on Windows-based computers, code written in Python can run on any operating system, including MacOS and Linux systems. Such interoperability allows more users to download and experiment with the language. And, unlike some other applications that require a paid license, Python is free to use. Python also has very simple syntax, which makes it easier for beginners to learn than other languages such as Java.
Although there are numerous ways that Python can be used for chemical engineering work, I have to wonder if it has any direct applicability in the day-to-day work of an editor-in-chief. Could we, for example, create a program capable of editing a feature article for technical accuracy, which automatically cross-references the literature for articles of similar subject matter? Though such a programming feat may not ever be in my wheelhouse, perhaps I will start learning the basics of Python just for fun. Hello World!
Emily Petruzzelli, Editor-in-Chief
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