One of the oldest guards of programming language, created in 1954 with a commercial release in 1957, Fortran was started as IBM’s mathematical translation system — aka FORmula TRANslation for its 704 computer. Designed by a team led by computer scientist John Backus, Fortran was developed to work on computably heavy applications like astrophysics or weather prediction.
Traditionally, programmers and developers used to program in machine assembly code in binary, which was not only difficult but extremely time-consuming to debug the code. Thus, Fortran was developed as the first high-level language using a compiler, which was simple to learn and suitable for several applications. Being independent of computer hardware and enabling rapid programming, it marked a significant milestone in the history of computer programming. It also became the preferred language for programming in the late 1950s.
Fortran code on a punched card in the 1950s
Fortran has been the first language standardised by the American National Standards Institute, thus making it suitable for all sorts of significant investments like high-performance computing software. With that being said, over the years, Fortran has also undergone several updates and advancements to compete with the more contemporary languages of the current date. However, with more emerging languages coming up, Fortran started getting replaced in the academic circles. In fact, despite being groundbreaking at one point, Fortran is hardly being talked about or used in the industry today and doesn’t even land on the list of the top programming languages to learn in the current times. This raises an interesting question — now 66 years down the line, is Fortran dead in 2020?
Is Fortran Being Replaced?
With Fortran revolutionising the programming scenario in the 1950s, it made IBM the top computer company for decades. It launched not only interesting ideas like arithmetic assignments but also formatted input and output along with subroutines and functions. However, with the advent of C and C++, it’s considered to become a legacy that is almost forgotten by new age programmers and developers.
New age software is all written in other programming languages like Python, Java, R, etc. A lot of this could be attributed to the current requirement of software to focus more on user exercise than on computing power. Thus leveraging new age languages is more preferred. Even C and C++ have been standardised, thus making them suitable for large computing heavy applications. These developments led to a sharp decline in the percentage of Fortran developers in the industry. Alongside, with the language becoming legacy, it also started becoming difficult to replace old Fortran developers with new ones.
However, having said that, for many, this niche scientific programming language is still alive and remains popular for applications that require massively high-performance computing. It is still dominating the fields of large scale simulation like astrophysical modelling of stars and galaxies, molecular dynamics, working on large scale weather models, as well as electronic structure calculation codes. In fact, the only two languages that are currently in use for large scale numerical simulation are — C++ and Fortran. Modern Fortran also comes with coarrays that are used for parallel processing of data. This made it quite favourable among physicists, which often creates astonishment for scientists and researchers who are more prevalent with new-age programming languages.
If compared with other languages, according to many studies, both Fortran and C++ turned out to be the fastest. Indeed, the most preferred Python language turned out to be way slower and not so suitable for heavy numerical computation. Although C++ wins over Fortran in many tasks, it succeeds in n-body simulation, which is a simulation of a dynamical system of particles and calculation of molecular spectra. Thus, researchers and scientists have started moving to C++, Java and other newer languages for various scientific applications, not only because of the immense availability of function libraries but also the enormous access of programming talent.
Is It Still Important To Learn Fortran?
With its 66 years of legacy, Fortran is still considered alive for many reasons. One of the primary ones is the valuable legacy that Fortran code has in critical software systems like weather prediction, hurricane or storm surge prediction as well as traffic monitoring. Alongside several scientific software systems have been coded neatly with Fortran. These software systems, although over the years have gained immense advancements to bring out the accurate outcome, they haven’t been rebuilt or recorded with other languages as not only would it be a tiring task but also a massive loss of resources.
Further to this, while Fortran cannot surpass current programming languages for all the benchmarks, it is indeed efficient for all numerical and mathematical applications. Along with its ease of coding, it is also very effortless to learn. Though this is an advantage, this edge also comes with newer languages, like Python or R. But, its strong performance on high computing platforms gives it an upper hand.
So, despite predicting its end, it is still evolving at a continuous rate. Over the years, the language has come up with several advanced versions, keeping itself relevant with scientific programmers. Recently in 2018, Fortran released its latest version with further interoperability with C, as well as some additional parallel features.
With such pointers in hand, it can be said that Fortran still plays an active role in the engineering and scientific world. Thus, if professionals are working on mathematical and niche work in weather modelling, financial trading, or computational physics, they might need to familiarise them with Fortran for a better understanding of many applications.
So, as we have settled on the importance of Fortran in the computer programming world, it is indeed a choice of a programmer to pick their preferred language to solve a problem and get the desired output. However, it undoubtedly would be a waste of time and effort to switch to another language if working on open-source Fortran-related projects. So learning a so-called ancient language, Fortran wouldn’t be a wrong move for new programmers, if willing to make a career in scientific computing.
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Sejuti currently works as Senior Technology Journalist at Analytics India Magazine (AIM). Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org