Free and open-source software is growing to be a powerful tool in academic research, helping scientists to collaborate better and work smarter. Achintya Rao investigates how such software is being used in physics research, and its role in the wider open-science movement
Twenty-three thousand. According to computer scientist Katie Bouman, that is how many people were involved in creating the first ever image of a black hole, taken by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) in 2019. Not all of these contributors are formally members of the EHT collaboration (whose numbers are in the hundreds) – the vast majority are those who write, maintain and support the free and open-source software tools that the researchers used in their work.
Bouman became the face of the EHT, after a photo of her delighted grin at seeing her work in action went viral. Code that she had written was part of the imaging software pipeline that extracted that famous photograph. But to Bouman, her contribution was only possible courtesy of software that was shared openly. “We would be getting nowhere if we didn’t have these kinds of tools that other people in the community have built up and have made free to use,” she told Physics World from her home in California, US. “We’re very, very thankful for everything that other people have done.”
Across the Atlantic, Suchita Kulkarni, a particle physicist at the University of Graz in Austria, who specializes in phenomenology of dark matter, agrees. “The reason phenomenology works, the reason people can look at exciting things at the Large Hadron Collider,” she says, “is because we have open-source software that is freely available under creative licences.”