Literature impressions

I have often been frustrated by the inefficiency of reading through the physics literature. One problem is that physicists are sometimes bad teachers and are usually bad writers, and so it can take a long time of reading a paper before you even figure out what the author is trying to say. This gets worse when you look at papers that aren’t in your immediate physics niche, because then the author will probably use assumptions, mathematical techniques, and terminology you aren’t familiar with. If you had infinite time, you could spend days reading every paper that looks reasonably interesting, but you don’t. A preferred technique is to ask your colleagues to explain it to you, because they are more likely to speak your language and (unlike a paper) can answer your questions when you come up against a confusion. But generally your colleagues haven’t read it; they want you to read it so you can explain it to them. I spend a lot of time reading papers that end up being uninteresting, but it’s worth it for the occasional gems. And it seems clear that there is a lot of duplicated work being done sorting through the chaff.

So on the one hand we have a lengthy, fixed document from a single, often unfamiliar perspective (i.e. the actual paper in a different field) and on the other hand we have a breathing human being in your own field who will patiently explain things to you. An intermediate solution would be to have a few people in different fields read the paper and then translate the key parts into their field’s language, which could then be passed around. In order for there to be a large supply of these so that many papers are covered, these “impressions” would have to be short, informal, unimpressive, and — importantly — not “count against” a writer’s reputation if he got something wrong (just like an informal conversation between colleagues). Not only does this preclude formal publication, it also makes it very unlikely that the writer will decide to clutter the arXiv with it, where it will irrevocably remain easily searchable in perpetuity.

However, the blog format is pretty perfect for these sorts of things, and lots of academic bloggers already do something close to what I described in the previous paragraph. But even though there are a fair number of bloggers, the number of papers reviewed in this manner is far too tiny. My main aim would be to “lower the bar”, by posting more rough and short summaries of papers (or series of papers). Hopefully, this after-the-fact summary of a paper will be useful to me as a learning tool, and also maybe useful to a handful of other people in the hypothetical future where I start saying anything interesting enough on this blog to attract a non-zero audience.

You might call these postings “literature impressions”, which sound sufficiently tentative that I won’t be held accountable for any of it. On reflection, though, I’ll probably just entitle them “comments on [x]”. The first one is here.

[Edited on 2014-2-12]

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One Comment

  1. Pingback: Literature impression: Hotta’s Quantum Energy Teleportation | foreXiv

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