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March 2005

Python interface to NCL’s graphics library now available

The NCAR Command Language (NCL), developed by SCD in 1995, is an important programming language for the analysis and visualization of scientific data. Now more researchers will be able to access its publication-quality graphics.

Fred Clare and Mary Haley of SCD’s Visualization and Enabling Technologies Section have created a Python interface to NCL’s visualization library. Python, a mainstream programming language often compared with Perl, TCL (Tool Command Language), and Java, has a large and growing base of scientific users. The new interface, PyNGL (pronounced “pingle”), is generating an enthusiastic response among atmospheric researchers who use Python for programming but want the superior visualization capabilities of NCL.

Fred Clare and Mary Haley

“A number of people in the Python community had expressed regret that there were no high-quality 2D graphics available in that language,” says Fred. “Meanwhile, NCL creates some of the best 2D scientific visualizations in the world, and we wanted to make it available to a wider audience. So we saw this as a great opportunity.”

PyNGL allows Python users to access NCL graphics from a Python script without having to learn NCL. “By creating this module to a popular language like Python,” says Mary, “we’re opening ourselves to a whole new level of opportunities to collaborate with universities and other research centers.”

Mary expects PyNGL to bring increased visibility to NCL’s visualization functionality, with the potential for hundreds of new users. Indeed, a professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago is already planning to use PyNGL to teach a Python-based computational course.

Early last year, Fred and Mary began working with a test group to fine-tune the alpha version of PyNGL. In September they introduced the beta release at the Scientific Python (SciPy) user conference at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, where one attendee called it “the best thing I took away from SciPy 2004.”

Users can download a free beta version of PyNGL off the Web. Fred and Mary hope next to create Python interfaces to NCL’s data processing libraries, and Dave Brown, the lead developer of NCL, has already begun work on a Python interface to NCL’s powerful file access capabilities. • Lynda Lester

On the Web

Getting started using PyNGL

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