When did Math-phobes take over the Blogosphere?
I want to write a post describing a clever derivation of Noether’s Theorem in Walter Greiner’s book Field Quantization, but I’m thwarted by my inability to use LaTeX mathematical typesetting in this blog. Rest assured the thought that I was going to share was really worth reading, but as I cannot share it through this blog, I’d like to use this post to complain about the lack of widespread LaTeX support in blogs.
Despite the large number of math/physics blogs I have found only one blog that regularly uses mathematical typesetting (Mathematics Weblog). Is there really only one island in the blogosphere that regularly makes decent use of mathematical typesetting?
There are certainly physicists out there blogging, but high-profile blogs like Cosmic Variance focus on making high energy physics (and the life of high energy physicists, in Clifford’s case) accessible to a general audience rather than the nitty gritty. Lubos Motl and Peter Woit regularly blog about string theory, but they’re shackled by their medium. One can convey information in chunk of equation-less text as efficiently as one could over the phone, and quantitatively discussing mathematical topics over the phone is like trying to use twigs to describe classical music (i.e. it’s brilliant if one can do so successfuly, but altogether not as good as direct communication).
What really surprises me is that there is virtually no demand for wider integration of LaTex into the “everyday-Internet,” i.e. blogs, e-mail, chat. LaTeX is lingua franca of digital mathematics; it provides an easy-to-type (once you’re used to it) way to create documents with equations, graphs, and symbols. In fact, I’m stymied that math and physics students aren’t expected to learn LaTeX early in their undergraduate education… or at all, as the case was at Stanford. (I should note that there is one online community, homework-help forums such as Physics Forums, that regularly makes use of LaTeX.)
The physics community forged a path into the future of scientific publication when it developed the arXiv, an automated electronic archive of research paper “e-prints.” The arXiv, which quickly became a standard, made it easy for undergrads, professors, and crackpots alike to access the latest research. It also provided a way for researchers to lay claim to an area of research (addressing the issue of “scooped” research topics). While an equilibrium between referee-and-paper-based journals and the arXiv has yet to be unanimously determined, E-prints have provided a paradigm shift in physics research. If you don’t believe this, ask any current physics graduate student when was the last time they went to the library to look up an article in a journal. Michael Peskin wrote a nice essay on E-prints in the April 2005 issue of APS News.
Now just as the arXiv was a ‘quantum leap’ (ugh, forgive the pun but it’s appropriate here) in the way we communicate physics, a standard for embedding LaTeX in blogs and instant message interface has the potential to further facilitate the spread of ideas. Instead of waiting for a paper to be published on the arXiv, blogs can allow researchers to briefly discuss questions they’ve been thinking about on the timescale of days (rather than the timescale of paper-writing). IM clients like Adium (if anyone ever uses it) allow students to discuss problems without being limited by physical proximity. By incorporating LaTeX into e-mail standards (something that a benevolent empire like Google might instigate), researchers can efficiently communicate with colleagues without TeX’ing up their thoughts.
I firmly believe that there is a small revolution waiting to happen with LaTeX. To be sure we’re just at the cusp of making a change. Adium with LaTeX and LaTeX-ready forums already exist. It takes very little effort for blog hosts to install LaTeX on their servers. LaTeX is already standard on wikis such as Wikipedia. For all of their creativity, I’m sure the braintrust at Google could incorporate LaTeX into gMail and Google Groups. The only thing missing is the hordes of scientists and students who are pushing to make communication easier by standardizing this. For example, despite there being a LaTeX plugin for WordPress, I cannot use this because free hosts won’t let me install server-side components and I’m too poor to purchase server space where I can load it.
I guarantee that there is at least one disgruntled physics student who would like to be able to share an equation or two with the rest of the blogosphere.
Filed under: Opinion, Physics | 6 Comments