Interview: Jesper Schmidt Hansen, author of GNU Octave Beginner’s Guide

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jesper-schmidt-hansen-gnu-octaveThis week’s FLOSS4Science interview is with Jesper Schmidt Hansen, nanofluidics scientist and author of the GNU Octave Beginner’s Guide, one of the few books on GNU Octave besides the official GNU Octave manuals. Remember that you can leave comments or questions at the end of the post. Enjoy the interview!

F4S: Hello Jesper. Please, give us a brief introduction about yourself.

Jesper: I currently hold a position at Roskilde University, Denmark, where I investigate fundamental phenomena in nanofluidics. I have been a postdoctoral fellow at Swinburne University, Australia, and at Pierre et Marie Curie, France. Before my academic career I did a Ph.D. in soft condensed matter.

F4S: How did you got involved with open source software?

Jesper: For quite a long time I was a basic user of GNU/Linux. I was mainly using it for writing reports (using LaTeX) and doing some simple numerical work with Octave. During my Ph.D. studies I began developing my first open source software – a molecular dynamics library which I still maintain together with my colleague Stefano Bernardi. I am currently involved in an open source GPU-based molecular dynamics project at Roskilde University called RUMD.

I have also written an Octave interface for the g2 graphic library, but I do not maintain (or use) this package anymore.

F4S: Tell us the story behind your book “GNU Octave Beginner’s Guide”.

Jesper: I have been wanting to write a text on GNU Octave for quite a long time. Originally, my idea was to write about how you can use Octave for complex dynamical analysis, for example, how to solve partial differential equations and do simple bifurcation analysis. As most people would know, going from having an idea to actually carry it out takes some dedication – and a lot of time – so besides a few notes I never got to write anything useful. In the spring of 2010 my good friend Kenneth Geisshirt informed me that Packt Publishing was looking for an author who had experience in Octave and who was interested in writing a beginner’s book. I contacted Packt and we after one week the editor and I had agreed on the book content and I had signed the contract. It was exactly this sort of catalyst I needed to get started.

F4S: Who will benefit from reading it?

Jesper: Octave is an extremely powerful numerical tool and I wanted to show the reader some useful applications that went beyond simple operations. Therefore, in order to fully benefit from the book the reader should probably have a level of math corresponding to undergraduate science degree. The book includes examples from biology, finance, engineering and math, i.e. I expect the book is relevant for any field using numerical methods – just like Octave is. The last part of the book introduces some more advanced subjects, for example, how you can make your own Octave package and how you can interface with the Octave interpreter using C++, so I hope that an experienced user will find these chapters useful as well.


F4S: How will you describe your experience writing the book? Was it worst than writing a PhD thesis?

Jesper: Well, this is a hard question – it was very *different* from writing my thesis! As I say in the preface to the book, having a one year old child, a full time job and writing a book with very many deadlines is not the ideal cocktail. The manuscript was prepared using a very well known proprietary office package, which I had never used before and caused some frustrations on my side to say the least, especially when it came to the math symbols and equations. My wife, Signe, often had to come to the rescue! I want to stress, that I was pleased with the co-operation Packt and I had during the writing of the book, especially, at the end the technical editor Dayan Haymes was very professional and helpful.

F4S: Do you have plans for other books?

Jesper: I do not have any specific plans at the moment, but I would definitely like to write another book one day.

F4S: Why is free/libre open source scientific software important for your field?

Jesper: In my field of research you often wish to study very specific/fundamental problems and it can be very useful if you can make the necessary changes or additions (using existing open source libraries for example) to the code in order to optimize and extend it to meet your particular needs. This freedom is not always a possibility with non-free software. I have mainly used open source software in my research for more than 10 years now.

F4S: Which projects, blogs or sites related to open source software for science can you recommend?

Jesper: Anyone interested in Octave should know about the official Octave mailing list – this can be found from the Octave web page. People are very helpful and will answer both newbie and advanced questions – even John W. Eaton who started the serious development of Octave in the 90s will answer questions here.

F4S:Is there any other topic you would like our readers to know about?

Jesper: Well, I would just get all nerdy so I better not.

F4S: :D Thanks for your time Jesper.

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Dear reader, if you are starting with GNU Octave you may find helpful Resources for learning GNU Octave.

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