Computer Skills for Research
Unix and Linux
By Mark Ciotola
First published on October 10, 2019. Last updated on November 9, 2019.
If you are serious about using the full capacity of computers for research, you will need to use Unix or Linux. Unix is an operating system developed in the 1980s by the Bell Labs (the research operation of the old AT&T telephone company). It isn’t super easy to learn or use, but you can do a lot with a few basic commands. Once you do learn it, Unix is often the most efficient and powerful way to accomplish tasks on a computer.
All Apple Macintosh computers that run system 10 or later actually run Unix as their operating system. However, their is a graphical user interface (GUI) on top of the operating system, so most Mac users never have to directly interact with the Unix layer. However, the application Terminal does let you talk to the Unix layer.
Some older MS Windows machines run a language that is a little bit like Unix called DOS (Disk Operating System). DOS is very useful for those machines, but it is not ad widely used for research as Unix. (DOS can have some advantages when working with hardware, but that is beyond this lesson). Fortunately, most MS Windows machines can run a variant of Unix called Linux. It is possible to install Linux on a machine that also runs Windows and have “dual boot” machine that can run either operating system. (Setting up a dual boot machine can wipe out your existing files, so don’t do it unless you really know what you are doing, and back up everything first).
It is also possible to run only Linux on some computers. On other computers, such as the Raspberry Pi, it is possible to run only Linux.
Unix is typically run from a command line utility. As mentioned, many Unix and Linux have a GUI built on top. Nevertheless, you will need to learn to use the command line to gain the full power of Unix or Linux.
While in a command line interface or terminal application, type “cal” or “date” (without the quotes). These are simple Unix commands that should display the date or a calendar.