An Unsung Female Pioneer of Computer Simulation



In 1952, at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, theoretical physicists Enrico Fermi, John Pasta and Stanislaw Ulam brainstormed methods to make use of the MANIAC, one of many world’s first supercomputers, to unravel scientific issues. On the time, issues have been solved by performing both laboratory experiments or mathematical calculations by hand. Fermi, Pasta and Ulam wished to make use of their new problem-solving device—laptop simulation—to nearly zoom in on a system and observe atomistic interactions on the molecular degree, with a realism that was not doable earlier than.

They selected to simulate a sequence of level plenty linked by springs, designed to symbolize atoms linked by chemical bonds, then observe what occurred to power because it moved round on the chain. The system, which resembled objects on a vibrating string, was vital as a result of it was nonlinear—unable to be solved by being damaged into smaller items. Interactions between atoms are universally nonlinear, however they couldn’t be noticed with a microscope. This experiment on the MANIAC would enable scientists to nearly observe, for the primary time, interactions between particular person atoms.

Fermi, Pasta and Ulam designed the experiment; a programmer named Mary Tsingou made it occur. Tsingou wrote an algorithm, programmed the MANIAC, and ran the simulation time and again, alongside the way in which making changes, debugging and altering enter to match outcomes. Fermi, Pasta, and Ulam thought the power would unfold out alongside the chain and finally attain equilibrium, but it surely saved transferring, by no means settling anyplace. The scientists have been shocked by the outcomes, and the experiment gave beginning to the sphere of nonlinear science, which incorporates a wide selection of scientific and mathematical areas of research, reminiscent of chaos concept. “Nonlinearity is the nice frontier of science,” says Steven Strogatz, a professor of arithmetic at Cornell College. This specific experiment, he says, “was certainly one of humanity’s first makes an attempt to see what lurks out in these borderlands.”

The experiment has traditionally been named the Fermi-Pasta-Ulam drawback, or FPU, for the three physicists who authored the 1955 report, however many scientists now confer with it because the Fermi-Pasta-Ulam-Tsingou drawback, or FPUT. Within the unique Los Alamos report, a column lists “work by” the three authors plus Mary Tsingou, and the primary web page features a footnote studying, “We thank Miss Mary Tsingou for environment friendly coding of the issues and for operating the computations on the Los Alamos MANIAC machine.”

Mary Tsingou Menzel is a really humble scientific recreation changer. Nonetheless dwelling in Los Alamos together with her husband, Joe Menzel, she expresses shock on the significance of the experiment she programmed nearly 70 years in the past. She additionally regularly asserts that she has by no means felt slighted by not being included within the naming of the issue. “It by no means bothered me,” Tsingou says. “They did acknowledge that I did the programming.”

The affect of the experiment on trendy science is troublesome to overstate. “Nonlinear science destroyed the clockwork view of the classical universe by exhibiting how chaos locations limits on predictability,” says David Campbell, a professor of physics at Boston College. “Nonlinear research are actually part of the canon of contemporary science.”

Most techniques are, in truth, nonlinear. “Quantum gravity, most cancers, the immune system, the financial system, the resilience of ecosystems, the origin of life, local weather change—all of those issues are characterised by thickets of suggestions loops and interactions among the many numerous components of the techniques that make the entire roughly than the sum of its components,” says Strogatz. These kind of techniques couldn’t be studied earlier than laptop simulation, and laptop simulations couldn’t happen with out programmers.

Tsingou initially got here to work at Los Alamos as a mathematician, however when the chance arose, she turned certainly one of just a few individuals on the time who discovered to program the MANIAC. It was then that she started working with Fermi, Pasta and Ulam in a theoretical group that had been given use of the MANIAC, and he or she turned instrumental in a groundbreaking experiment. “We have been all sitting there collectively,” Tsingou remembers, “and so they [say], ‘We’ve bought this machine; we’ve bought to give you some issues’ that couldn’t be solved earlier than theoretically.” They went by means of a number of choices however determined to attempt the vibrating string.

As soon as she knew what the physicists wished to check, Tsingou handwrote an algorithm that will be her pathway for acquiring the outcomes. “We made flowcharts,” she says, “as a result of once you’re debugging an issue, you need to know the place you’re so you possibly can cease at completely different locations and take a look at issues. Like every mission, you might have some thought, however as you go alongside, it’s a must to make changes and corrections, or it’s a must to again up and take a look at a special method.”


Working the simulation took years in whole, with the ultimate calculations happening in 1955, after Fermi’s dying. “I used to be the one one who labored on it just about repeatedly,” Tsingou says. The scientists “would work on it after which neglect about it for some time and get into one other mission, then they’d name me up and say, ‘Change this slightly bit’ or ‘See if placing in additional factors will get higher outcomes.’” So, the method was ongoing for fairly a while as outcomes have been gathered and analyzed, and adjustments have been made. “They might counsel new issues, and we’d run it, then they’d get entangled in different issues and so would I.”

Although a preprint of the 1955 report was learn by a number of physicists, the experiment wasn’t broadly disseminated till Fermi’s collected papers have been revealed in 1965. However finally, the FPUT’s outcomes revealed an entire new method to consider and take a look at issues that might not be examined earlier than. Since then, the tactic of utilizing computer systems to conduct experiments has turn into customary in lots of fields. “The FPUT drawback revealed the ability of simulation,” Strogatz says. “It confirmed the scientific world that an astonishing new instrument, akin to the microscope and the telescope, had arrived for exploring beforehand unexplored worlds.”

Simulation has myriad makes use of throughout fields. “Numerical experiments are actually central to science and engineering,” says Dvira Segal, a professor of chemistry on the College of Toronto who makes use of variations of the FPUT chain to conduct numerical research of warmth transport. For instance, “since FPUT chains don’t exhibit regular warmth conductivity,” she explains, “simulating these techniques on a pc permits us to uncover mechanisms of anomalous warmth transport on the nanoscale—and discern crucial circumstances for reaching regular conduction.”

Whereas the affect of the FPUT has lengthy been celebrated, the total story of the individuals who created it didn’t begin of unfold till the early 2000s, when physicist Thierry Dauxois started to surprise in regards to the identify within the footnote. Dauxois was additionally acquainted with a paper revealed on the FPU in 1972 by James Tuck and M. T. Menzel. “A cautious studying of the introduction reveals that Menzel was concerned within the coding of the unique drawback, however nobody by that identify is talked about within the Los Alamos report,” says Dauxois, director of the CNRS Institute of Physics at ENS de Lyon. He deduced that M.T. was Mary Tsingou, publishing below her married identify, Menzel. Dauxois had labored at Los Alamos as a postdoctoral researcher, and he used his contacts there to rearrange an interview with Tsingou, leading to his 2008 article in Physics As we speak that sparked the gradual change from FPU to FPUT.

For a lot of scientists, there isn’t any query that Tsingou’s identify ought to be added to the experiment. “As we speak, an individual who writes a critical computational code to check an issue in any scientific self-discipline is taken into account an equal co-author,” Campbell says. “That is partially as a result of there are actually three approaches to finding out scientific issues: theoretical work, experimental observations and computational research,” the latter of which encompasses Tsingou’s work on the FPUT.  “The invention relied on Tsingou’s algorithm growth, programming, code execution and knowledge assortment and evaluation,” Segal says. “Given the vital position she performed, Tsingou ought to be considered a co-discoverer of this exceptional end result that marks the beginning of nonlinear science.”

The FPUT was carried out early in Tsingou’s 30-year profession at Los Alamos, the place she was an professional within the programming language FORTRAN and labored on initiatives just like the Strategic Protection Initiative, generally known as “Star Wars.” However all through her complete achieved profession, individuals known as from all around the world to ask Tsingou in regards to the FPUT and to request her work on programming new variations. “From the start,” she says, “individuals have been within the vibrating string.”

That is an opinion and evaluation article; the views expressed by the writer or authors will not be essentially these of Scientific American.

This text is an extension of the writer’s earlier work in Nationwide Safety Science.


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