Wise Insights

Fernando Pérez, Winner of the 2013 Free Software Foundation Award

Today, my friend and colleague Fernando Pérez won the Free Software Foundation prize. It was presented by Richard Stallman at the Libre Planet Conference in Cambridge, MA. I cannot think of someone more deserved of such a prestigious recognition. Fernando started the IPython project back in 2001 as a side project, and it has grown in the background of the plethora of other things Fernando has done in his academic life. Major development started on IPython in 2008 and there has been no looking back. Fernando wrote about the history of IPython in 2012.

IPython Notebook

As anyone in the Python community, or more broadly the data scientist ecosystem, knows, the IPython Notebook (which only really came to life in the last 2 years) has transformed the way developers and scientists work and collaborate. It’s arrival on the Azure platform is just one indication of how much the Notebook has reached the mainstream. An IPython Notebook renders a beautiful and interactive interface to Python sessions. It is, itself, a tiny JSON-like file that was explicitly built to allow for intelligent versioning. Thanks to this great architecture, the IPython notebook interops well with many of the favored languages of data scientists, including R, Julia, FORTRAN, and C.

Reproducible Science

To highlight the power of what Fernando and the community have produced, I note one particularly remarkable event. In May of last year, Fernando was demoing, at a biological workshop, how the IPython parallel tools could be used for large-scale data analysis in the cloud. He and a few other attendees recognized in the morning that an unsolved problem in microbial ecology could be addressed with his toolkit. By the end of the day, they had found an elegant solution. And by the end of the week, they submitted their result to the prestegious journal Nature, where the IPython notebook became part of an “executable paper” (that is, self-contained, self-describing and 100% reproducible). Stories like this are cropping up in the scientific community and it is Fernando and the IPython community that is enabled them.

Teaching Tool

Lastly, I want to note the remarkable usefulness of the IPython Notebook for as a didactic tool. He and I have been teaching a bootcamp at UC Berkeley since the first days of the Notebook, and we have seen first hand how beneficial it is to have students follow along during lecture and execute code snippets while they learn. The Notebook allows students to seamlessly change parts of Notebook cells and instantly see the results. The Notebook viewer makes it dead simple to view notebooks in git repos without needing an IPython session up and running.

Fernando Pérez and his wife

Fernando (middle) and Adriana, his wife (left) at a solar eclipse party at my house.

Fernando Pérez, So Awesome

Fernando, a native of Colombia, was trained as a physicist and mathematician and is currently employed as a neuroscience researcher at UC Berkeley. He is one of the most thoughtful, generous, and caring people I know and an absolute pleasure to work with. Too often the genius behind the tools that make our lives more productive goes unrecognized. Fernando Pérez, with his unwavering passion and talents, is the visionary that has built this remarkable edifice on which the new titans of science will stand. He is so deserved of this award.