My Blank Pages VI: Programming in Igor Pro

It has been a long time since I wrote a book review.

A few months ago I read on IgorExchange that Martin Schmid had written a book about programming Igor. I snapped up a copy. I’m a competent Igor programmer but I was hoping that this book would be useful for lab members that want to learn.

Learning Igor – like most IDEs or programming languages – is tough going. There’s a booklet from WaveMetrics (the company that sells Igor Pro) called Getting Started – which is really good. There are a few other guides on the web (Payam’s guide, Thomas Braun’s coding conventions, quantixed’s own translator), but other resources are pretty scarce. The Igor Manual itself is excellent but it’s many, many pages long and is only meant to be consulted. So I was intrigued whether Martin Schmid’s book would fill the gap between Getting Started and more advanced guides.

What makes Igor Pro so fantastic is the way that you can use it for so many different things: image processing, statistics, graphing, curve fitting, instrument control and so on. Part of the challenge of writing a book on Igor Programming is deciding what to cover. Schmid deals with this by covering basic programming and core-intermediate topics such as dialogs, loops, string magic etc. The book stops short of any specialised applications. So it’s a really useful intermediate programming guide. It’s a great little book and is recommended for those who want to dig further after doing the Getting Started exercises.

I knew I would learn something from the book because there’s always alternative ways to do stuff in Igor: things that you didn’t know about or little tricks to do stuff faster. What I was surprised about was the first thing mentioned in the book was new to me. The author favours module-static programming. All of my Igor programming has been done in the global pragma and I have avoided this more C-like way of encapsulating programs that I’ve written so far. Module-static works well because it eliminates naming conflicts. I have dealt with name conflicts by using static functions which are called from the top of the stack, and the top has a unique name (arguably this is the same as module-static, but not identical). As the Igor Manual says “this gets tedious after a while” and that’s true. Although in my defence, name conflicts are generally not a problem for the way I work because I favour a reproducible approach. A new experiment is started – one user-written ipf is opened – and the code is run. This means naming conflicts are minimised. The book has actually convinced me that module-static is a good thing, especially since my Igor code is now deployed around the lab and naming conflicts could easily become a problem. It’s an advanced programming technique but is dealt with early by the author and it kind of works. After this, more basic programming topics are covered in depth.

There’s always room for improvement: there are several example programs at the back which need to be rekeyed to run, since this is a paper book and no electronic version is available AFAIK. The author has put one up here to save rekeying and another here, but otherwise you need to type in the examples to see what will happen. This is too long-winded. I’ve been spoiled reading texts about R where the examples can all be run from a markdown file inside RStudio. It would’ve been nice if the code was made available for this book. I don’t think it would compromise the value of the book since it is the text that is most valuable.

The book is available at Amazon for £7.99 at the time of writing.

My Blank Pages is a track by Velvet Crush. This is an occasional series of book reviews.

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