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PhysicsWorld Archive

Fortran faces the future at 50

  1. Peter Crouch
  2. Clive Page
  3. John Pelan
December 2007
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It may come as a surprise to find out that computational physics – the discipline that today uses powerful supercomputers to crunch through vast amounts of data on, say, the Earth's climate – actually began in the late 1920s, some three decades before the first electronic computers were built. One of the people responsible for kick-starting this field was the physicist and mathematician Douglas Hartree, who at the time was trying to calculate atomic wavefunctions in order to determine the structural properties of atoms. While the Schrödinger equation can easily be solved for the hydrogen atom, repeating the feat for multi-electron atoms involves calculations that at the time were generally thought to be intractable. Hartree, however, developed a technique known as the self-consistent field method, which allowed these problems to be solved numerically. Unfortunately, his method was so laborious using the facilities available at the time – mechanical calculators operated by humans – that very little use was made of it until electronic computers became available.