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Laura Gladstone | University of Wisconsin, Madison | USA

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A Physicist and Historian Walk Into a Coffee Shop

It’s Saturday, so I’m at the coffee shop working on my thesis again. It’s become a tradition over the last year that I meet a writer friend each week, we catch up, have something to drink, and sit down for a few hours of good-quality writing time.

photo09

The work desk at the coffee shop: laptop, steamed pork bun, and rosebud latte.

We’ve gotten to know the coffee shop really well over the course of this year. It’s pretty new in the neighborhood, but dark and hidden enough that business is slow, and we don’t feel bad keeping a table for several hours. We have our favorite menu items, but we’ve tried most everything by now. Some mornings, the owner’s family comes in, and the kids watch cartoons at another table.

I work on my thesis mostly, or sometimes I’ll work on analysis that spills over from the week, or I’ll check on some scheduled jobs running on the computing cluster.

My friend Jason writes short stories, works on revising his novel (magical realism in ancient Egypt in the reign of Rameses XI), or drafts posts for his blog about the puzzles of the British constitution. We trade tips on how to organize notes and citations, and how to stay motivated. So I’ve been hearing a lot about the cultural difference between academic work in the humanities and the sciences. One of the big differences is the level of citation that’s expected.

As a particle physicist, when I write a paper it’s very clear which experiment I’m writing about. I only write about one experiment at a time, and I typically focus on a very small topic. Because of that, I’ve learned that the standard for making new claims is that you usually make one new claim per paper, and it’s highlighted in the abstract, introduction, and conclusion with a clear phrase like “the new contribution of this work is…” It’s easy to separate which work you claim as your own and which work is from others, because anything outside “the new contribution of this work” belongs to others. A single citation for each external experiment should suffice.

For academic work in history, the standard is much different: the writing itself is much closer to the original research. As a start, you’ll need a citation for each quote, going to sources that are as primary as you can get your hands on. The stranger idea for me is that you also need a citation for each and every idea of analysis that someone else has come up with, and that a statement without a citation is automatically claimed as original work. This shows up in the difference between Jason’s posts about modern constitutional issues and historical ones: the historical ones have huge source lists, while the modern ones are content with a few hyperlinks.

In both cases, things that are “common knowledge” doesn’t need to be cited, like the fact that TeV cosmic rays exist (they do) or the year that Elizabeth I ascended the throne (1558).

There’s a difference in the number of citations between modern physics research and history research. Is that because of the timing (historical versus modern) or the subject matter? Do they have different amounts of common knowledge? For modern topics in physics and in history, the sources are available online, so a hyperlink is a perfect reference, even in formal post. By that standard, all Quantum Diaries posts should be ok with the hyperlink citation model. But even in those cases, Jason puts footnoted citations to modern articles in the JSTOR database, and uses more citations overall.

Another cool aspect of our coffee shop is that the music is sometimes ridiculous, and it interrupts my thoughts if I get stuck in some esoteric bog. There’s an oddly large sample of German covers of 30s and 40s showtunes. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard “The Lady is a Tramp” in German while calculating oscillation probabilities. I’m kidding. Mostly.

Jason has shown me a different way of handling citations, and I’ve taught him some of the basics of HTML, so now his citations can appear as hyperlinks to the references list!

As habits go, I’m proud of this social coffee shop habit. I default to getting stuff done, even if I’m feeling slightly off or uninspired.  The social reward of hanging out makes up for the slight activation energy of getting off my couch, and once I’m out of the house, it’s always easier to focus.  I miss prime Farmers’ Market time, but I could go before we meet. The friendship has been a wonderful supportive certainty over the last year, plus I get some perspective on my field compared to others.

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