GNU Astronomy Utilities

1.8 New to GNU/Linux?

Some astronomers initially install and use a GNU/Linux operating system because their necessary tools can only be installed in this environment. However, the transition is not necessarily easy. To encourage you in investing the patience and time to make this transition, and actually enjoy it, we will first start with a basic introduction to GNU/Linux operating systems. Afterwards, in Command-line interface we will discuss the wonderful benefits of the command-line interface, how it beautifully complements the graphic user interface, and why it is worth the (apparently steep) learning curve. Finally a complete chapter (Tutorials) is devoted to real world scenarios of using Gnuastro (on the command-line). Therefore if you do not yet feel comfortable with the command-line we strongly recommend going through that chapter after finishing this section.

You might have already noticed that we are not using the name “Linux”, but “GNU/Linux”. Please take the time to have a look at the following essays and FAQs for a complete understanding of this very important distinction.

In short, the Linux kernel13 is built using the GNU C library (glibc) and GNU compiler collection (gcc). The Linux kernel software alone is just a means for other software to access the hardware resources, it is useless alone! A normal astronomer (or scientist) will never interact with the kernel directly! For example, the command-line environment that you interact with is usually GNU Bash. It is GNU Bash that then talks to kernel.

To better clarify, let’s use this analogy inspired from one of the links above14: saying that you are “running Linux” is like saying you are “driving your engine”. The car’s engine is the main source of power in the car, no one doubts that. But you do not “drive” the engine, you drive the “car”. The engine alone is useless for transportation without the radiator, battery, transmission, wheels, chassis, seats, wind-shield, etc.

To have an operating system, you need lower-level tools (to build the kernel), and higher-level (to use it) software packages. For the Linux kernel, both the lower-level and higher-level tools are GNU. In other words,“the whole system is basically GNU with Linux loaded”.

You can replace the Linux kernel and still have the GNU shell and higher-level utilities. For example, using the “Windows Subsystem for Linux”, you can use almost all GNU tools without the original Linux kernel, but using the host Windows operating system, as in Alternatively, you can build a fully functional GNU-based working environment on a macOS or BSD-based operating system (using the host’s kernel and C compiler), for example, through projects like Maneage, see Akhlaghi et al. 2021, in particular Appendix C with all the GNU software tools that is exactly reproducible on a macOS also.

Therefore to acknowledge GNU’s instrumental role in the creation and usage of the Linux kernel and the operating systems that use it, we should call these operating systems “GNU/Linux”.



In Unix-like operating systems, the kernel connects software and hardware worlds.