in which I talk writing

The fundamental unit of scientific respectability is the scientific paper. It has been ‘scientific papers’ for at least 300 years, and it seems like that’s what it will be for the forseeable future.

Why? Well, partially tradition. We all trust the scientific paper to be the end-product unit of a scientific project.  It describes the experiment from start to finish, as completely as possible with enough particulars that the information can be replicated, used, and at least critiqued. The alternatives… well, despite the efforts of a number of scientists, nothing has come up as more convincing, or at least as universally accepted.  (The same can be said of anonymous peer review: with all its flaws, it’s the worst system except for all the other ones).

The thing is, it’s becoming increasingly obvious to a number of scientists and astronomers that “papers” are an awkward way to write up your work. Now, it’s all about massive data tables, massive data processing, and the results are best described in figures or, honestly, by showing someone how to explore the dataset. An explanation of a complicated computer algorithm or sorting process is often better described by a slideshow of pictures and flowcharts than a thousand words of prose.  Consider my various visualizations: How do you explain THAT succinctly in words?  Or even static figures?

Some progress has been made:  Dr. Alyssa Goodman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has spent her career trying to make all of this work, and she’s the first person (as far as I know) to publish a manipulatable 3D object in a PDF. It’s still a scientific paper, but it’s still the first scientific paper I know of where the “official” version of the document is one that cannot be printed on paper.

That concession to the “official” version being the printable one is rather anachronistic. Nobody I know uses paper copies of journals any more; if they have a printed copy of a paper it’s because they printed the PDF. The American Astronomical Society (and the Institute of Physics publishing house) will no longer publish physical copies of their journals as of 2015, and a few years ago they even stopped charging extra to have color figures!

Papers used to make sense. Back in the 1600 and 1700s, science was communicated at gatherings of scientists. If you couldn’t make it there to hear them, or if they couldn’t make it there to be heard, you communicated by letter. And written letters turned out to be a better way to include tables and figures and raw data that you’d probably forget if told, particularly if you knew you could look it up later. Papers (and letters) were a refreshingly shorter and more timely way to get results than massive comprehensive books. Consider all the renaissance scientists you’ve probably heard of- how many published one book, and only posthumously? (Think Copernicus) Or took 20 years preparing it? Writing out a small section of it in a paper was conspicuous progress in that it can be done faster.

I’m all for not throwing out old ideas simply because they’re old, but surely we can do better. Writing papers is challenging. A lot of it is convincing yourself that your carefully constructed hypotheses are sufficiently well supported to stand up to scrutiny. Then there’s the scientific jargon, which is necessary to make sure other scientists know what you mean, and the necessity of organizing ALL your thoughts and all the complex web of interacting factors and effects and decisions into a linear narrative – without care, it can end up as a mass of impenetrable near-nonsense. And then you sweat on trying to fix that.

Of course, any training in easy-to-follow writing has come on the job, and doesn’t come at all for some people. Saint-Exupery’s famous maxim “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away” doesn’t really jive with getting publications out quickly.  Some people have a naturally easier time with this than others. Some write a paper in two weeks.  Some take a few months.  Some take a year.  I know of a few papers that have been in some stage of preparation for over ten years. (Not continuously worked on, of course)

Maybe we’ll come up with something better, that doesn’t require shoving all the hard work through the tiny keyhole of written prose. Until then, I’ll continue writing papers, and I’ll continue writing these blog entries to exercise my creative muscles.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Tim says:

    THIS is where you are at these days! Been trying to find a valid email for you for a while.

    Anyhow, I am the person you encountered on the now defunct ‘Celesta’ site a few years ago, the guy who devised a unique spectroscopic photometric system which you so kindly critiqued. About a year and a half ago, I began work on turning this system into a purely photometric one. After quite a bit of effort, I managed to partly account for some systemic errors and get the system to the point where it gave distances good to within 20% about 79% of the time. A year ago, I gave the tables for this system to another interested person with far better computer skills than myself. Six months after that, he sent me a catalog listing distances for 139,000+ stars drawn from the ASCC, which I have been mulling over on and off since then.

    Of possible professional interest to you, this effort turned up something on the order of 1000 K stars without parallaxes within 25 parsecs – after some fairly draconian proper motion cuts. If you want, I’ll send you a copy sometime.

    Of relevance to your post, I have entertained the mad thought of trying to print out the dwarf star part of this effort (85,000+ stars). Assuming a format similar to the ‘Yale Bright Star Catalogue,’ I calculated this would take 4000+ pages. Might try it for a lark sometime. Make a good doorstop or some such.

    Tim (You may remember me as ThinkerX)

    Like

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