Imagine two scientists working on identical research projects—two astronomers, let’s say, who are both studying paired stars. Each has made a number of observations, and each is ready to do some number crunching. Astronomer Number One loads a statistical analysis program on his PC, and sets the calculations into motion. While this automatic process is going on, he’d like to type some notes, but he can’t—at least not on the same PC—because that machine will be tied up for a while. It can perform only one task at a time. Astronomer Number Two, however, doesn’t have to waste any time at all. She gets her statistical analysis program running and then—on the same PC—switches to a spreadsheet and gets cracking on her departmental budget. Somewhere in the “background” of her machine the number crunching is moving along efficiently.

What gives Astronomer Number Two such an advantage? It’s her PC’s multitasking...

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