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Flip Tanedo | USLHC | USA

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(Micro-)collaborations across continents

Particle physicists are known for having large collaborations that incorporate groups from universities and labs around the world. Experimentalists have developed fantastic tools for managing these collaborations including a range of video-conferencing tools, wiki-based resources, and `starter kits‘ to get new collaborators up-and-running.

Theorists, on the other hand, tend to use more mundane methods to manage much smaller collaborations of around three to five researchers from different places around world. A particular favorite is to organize workshops where a large group of researchers chat and develop new ideas in-person. After that most work is done via e-mails and conference calls (e.g. Skype) and is relatively independent.

Being good netizens of the 21st century, however, younger physicists have started thinking about how to use technology to help facilitate smaller-scale scientific collaborations. Web 2.0 staples like blogs and wikis can are simple ways to build a common set of knowledge in a research collaboration. For example, they can help

  • organize an annotated paper-trail of past literature on a subject
  • provide a truly collaborative (almost real-time) writing environment
  • let other collaborators know what you’re reading/thinking about.

For the past two weeks I’ve been collaborating with other graduate students at different institutions and playing with some of these tools to see how we can best make up for the lack of face-to-face-to-chalkboard interactions.

While there are lots of useful tools out there, we’ve yet to find a true `killer app’ that combines collaborative knowledge-management (wiki), threaded sub-discussions (forums, blogs), multimedia (VoIP, LaTeX), and real-time (instant messaging) + off-line (e-mail) communications.

There is one particularly promising tool in the near future, however: Google Wave. In the web search company’s May product preview, they demonstrated the system’s unique ability to facilitate mundane tasks like sharing photos or arranging a movie outing among friends. That’s all well and good, but my colleagues and I have especially high hopes for what it may do for scientific (and mathematical) collaboration.

Most of you web-saavy readers will already know a thing or two about Wave. For those that don’t, I’d recommend taking a look at their product preview. At the very least it’s a neat idea. As a researcher managing my own small collaborations, however, a few features stick out:

  1. As reported by Terence Tao, one of the early extensions appears to be a LaTeX package which would really help physics discussions. (The IM client Adium has had a similar feature for some time.)
  2. “Waves” combine the discussion threads of a blog/forum the collaborative document preparation of a wiki. In this way one could, for example, write up a section of a paper while having a thread of questions and answers to work out tricky calculations. (We’d never have to worry about a modern-day Fermat saying “there’s not enough room in this margin.”)
  3. The wiki and IM nature of a ‘wave’ automatically builds in real-time version control. One would never have to worry about e-mailing back and forth several versions of a paper and then losing track of which revisions are most recent. (This is a real annoyance when writing a paper.)
  4. I suspect it would not be difficult to write an API to send a document written in Google Wave to one’s local LaTeX compiler. This way one can really work collaboratively on a LaTeX file without all the overhead and limitations of having a central LaTex compiler (e.g. ScribTeX) or having to manually send LaTeX files back and forth via e-mail.

The current status is that Google already has a Wave beta in operation for developrs and plans on opening a limited public beta in September. It sounds very exciting!

Further reading

(I’ve been informed that I should sign my posts to help the Facebook crowd identify authors.)