Tools of the grad student theorist


Unlike my experimentalist friends, I don’t play with use multimillion dollar equipment in my research. Apart from a computer, I’m mostly a pen and paper jockey. However, I am rather fussy about that pen and paper. Psychologically I take my work more seriously when I’m using a high-quality pen and a nice notebook. This also helps me keep things organized and presentable so that I’ll still be able look back at my notes 20 years from now. (When I’m less confused, but perhaps more senile.)

My Theorist’s Toolkit

(Actual tangible tools, not integral tricks.)

Chalk Board

A sensitive topic dividing theory and experiment is what surface one prefers to write on. While experimentalists tend to go with slick white boards, most theorists prefer a stick of chalk and a dark surface. There’s a great article in the June/July 07 issue of Symmetry Magazine (“Chalk and Talk” by Heather Woods) which includes a few chalk board testimonials.

I’m happy to accept a light coating of dust for the tacticle nature of a chalk board. One actually feels the friction and hears the staccato of writing as one works out calculations. Indeed, nothing punctuates a point more than loudly boxing one’s final answer with a hint of bravado. Not to mention that a full chalkboard is just fun to look at.

Fig. 1: Chalk boards are also fun for drawing pictures of classmates.

I think a bit better on my feet and prefer to work out my thoughts on a board. I can put up reminders, do quick calculations, or otherwise exchange an ideas with someone nearby.

At home, however, it’s harder to install a large black board and the chalk dust that I didn’t mind in the office becomes rather annoying if it’s all over my apartment. Here white boards are an inexpensive alternative and make working-at-home much more practical. I wrote up a litte mini-guide on large, cheap DIY (do-it-yourself) white boards for a dorm room last year, which some readers may find useful.

Fig 2. Liquid chalk marker on my window last year.

Finally, if you’re short on wall surfaces, it’s probably because you’re fortunate enough to have large windows. A fancy option is to write on these with chalk markers or china markers. Chalk markers are expensive and can be difficult when writing vertically, but look rather nice and can be wiped off with a damp cloth. The china markers (wax pencils, really) are much more temperamental and require buffing for complete removal.

A large 4’x8′ white board pane is around $10 at Home Depot. Chalk markers and china markers can be found in most art stores and are generally not worth their price for everyday use.

Miquelrius A4 Graph Paper Notebooks

Fig 3: Miquelrius notebooks, featuring a durable plastic cover.

I’ve used A4 Miquelrius notebooks even while I was in the US. The notebook size is just right for fitting in loose pages (American or A4 sized) and the quality is top notch. Sure, you pay a little more for these, but Miquelrius notebooks are just perfect.

The notebooks have a durable plastic cover that’s ample protection for the adventurous life of a theorist — being tussled in a backpack, thrown on the floor in frustration, or spilled upon with coffee. The pages have colourful grids that include a well defined margin and a bar for putting a title and date; this is important if you really want to keep a `lab’ notebook where you write what you’ve worked on every day. The lines are in just the right hue to be easily visible but not to detract from your writing. The paper is bright white and thick enough so that any reasonable pen won’t bleed through. For those who are environmentally conscious, there are versions printed on recycled paper with an earthy tint.

Fig 4. Bright paper, a nice grid with margins, and a box for the date.

I use the 80 sheet one-subject notebooks for research and the larger 4-subject notebooks for my own personal archive of solved practice problems. At the end of the day these guys are significantly more expensive than the bargain rack of your college bookstore, so I wouldn’t use it for scrap paper. But for a daily `lab’ notebook, I wouldn’t use any other. It might be a bit hard to find these in the US, but apparently a previous blog post has turned in to an online Miquelrius bazaar.

Miquelrius notebooks are around $8 for ann 80-sheet one-subject notebook. Larger 4 subject notebooks are also available. In the UK Paperchase sells notebooks with Miquelrius paper and their own branded plastic covers; they have slightly fewer pages and are around £4, I think.

AL-Star (see also Safari and Vista)

Fig 5. My Lamy AL-Star and ink pot (saves on cartridges).

Before coming to the UK, I knew of only one physicist who regularly used a fountain pen. (Hint: he authored a popular QFT book.) At Cambridge, however, all the cool math students had fountain pens, and I was intrigued.

Practically, I need a writing device that is comfortable and writes smoothly. I stopped using pencils because they weren’t permanent enough for work meant to be saved. Garden variety ball point pens require too much pressure for hours of writing and the resulting lines aren’t always smooth. Gel pens are a bit better, though they usually smudge easily. A decent option here are the Pentel EnerGel pens which I use for most daily tasks; .5mm if you write small like me, otherwise .7mm fits just right into graph paper. (Also, the thicker .7mm or 1mm pens are better for anything you’ll be photocopying.)

However, when you want to go for a really nice experience, a fountain pen will go a long way. Fountain pens write as smoothly as gel pens, but have much more character owing to the nature of the ink. I use dark blue (`blue black’) ink, which produces a slight gradient as I write, adding a bit of depth to the page. Further, you get a pleasant tactile experience with the paper, reminiscent of the “physicality” of chalk boards.

The problem with fountain pens are that they can be anywhere from $10 to $10,000. (How’s that for a Hierarchy Problem?) An excellent and reasonably affordable pen I’ve found is the Lamy Safari (as well as its sisters the AL-Star and Vista). These were designed specifically with fountain pen “newbies” in mind. The shape of the pen actually promotes proper finger position when writing. A fine-point nib is just right for graph paper.

Fig 6. Lamy AL-Star, the pen is contoured to promote good writing style.

Though fountain pens aren’t cheap, buying a bottle of ink and a refillable cartridge does bring down the long-term total cost compared to disposable pens. Also, you look a lot sharper when you can whip out a fountain pen to give someone your e-mail. (Theorists harve a reputation for being primadonnas among physicists.)

Lamy Safari/AL-Star/Vista fountain pens are around $30, each bottle of Lamy ink is around $7.50. In the UK, I recommend purchasing through The Pen Shop, which sells these pens from £14 – £21; bottled ink is £5.

Roaring Springs Engineer calculation Pad (Buff)

Fig 7. Roaring Spring #95182, Buff Engineer Calculation Pad

If you look hard enough, you can find green “engineer calculation pads” with thin (15 lbs.) paper. The great thing about these pads are that they have a thick grid printed on the back of the each sheet. This means when you’re writing on the pad you see a nice grid, but if you photocopy the pages, only your writing is copied. The problem is that each sheet of paper is so thin that one worries that it might biodegrade while you’re writing on it.

It’s a bit harder to find the `buff’ (i.e. yellow) versions of these pads which have thicker paper that is more appropriate notes that you’d like to save. The paper is at least 20 lbs. (just a bit lighter than “ink jet paper”) and is more resistant to accidental crumpling up or tearing.

The particular brand that I use is Roaring Spring Paper Products “Engineer Calculation Pad.” Buff paper, 5 square grid pad. 8.5″ x11″, #95182.

Unfortunately I have no idea where to purchase these online. I bought a bunch for the Stanford Bookstore before I graduated — but one would probably have to contact the bookstore directly to ask if they’d mail order this specific item. Otherwise, there’s a page on Google Answers with some hints, but none seem to have panned out.

I’ve totally forgotten how much I paid for each pad of paper, something on the order of $4, I think. I bought a large stack when Stanford had its “Grad Night” sale last year.


Ok… so before you decide I’m neurotic about stationery (I might be), bear in mind that sometimes quality counts and it’s still cheaper than the Superconducting Super Collider. Put in another way, the value of the equipment that I’ve accidentally broken or wasted as an undergraduate research assistant in a condensed matter lab is still much greater than the cumulative sum of what I’ve spent on my theorist’s tools. 🙂


5 Responses to “Tools of the grad student theorist”

  1. Cool post.

    It seems that love for nice stationary, smooth pens and blackboards is a common trait amongst theorists. Practically every theorist I know, myself included, shares these little particularities.

    As for myself, I love being able to scrible on a blackboard. I even went so far as to go into my universities catacombs to, erm, borrow and old blackboard to install in my temporary office. I great fun installing it, two mates helped me put it up around 1AM while having a few beers. Priceless moment!


  2. 2 Christine

    I’m not a physicist of any kind, but I love fountain pens (have several), nice stationery and blackboards/chalk. Several years back I managed to find a small slate (a real slab of slate with a wooden frame around it, like the ones that could be found easily when I was a kid, but became scarce as manufacturers replaced them with a fake slate surface on one side and some kind of nasty particle board on the other) and chalk to go with it. I still have it.

  3. 3 Mat Baker

    I found the Roaring Springs Buff Engineering paper online @

  4. Ah! Fantastic! Thanks for the link, Mat! They ship in bulk quantities, but a 24-pack should last a good portion of my Phd… 🙂

  5. 5 Tito

    Ha! I’m not the only person that writes on windows, uses fountain pens and buff engineering paper. I’m a chemistry student, but got hooked on engineering paper in calculus courses. I use a lamy safari pen as well as a watermann phineas.

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