Tuesday, December 02, 2003

I did a few things today, but perhaps the most satisfying was the reorganization of my collection of papers. When I found that I could no longer put my hands on the paper I wanted, but had three copies of a paper I no longer cared about, it seemed time to do something. It's now possible to tell at a glance roughly the topics I work on: eigenvalue computations; computational mechanics and finite element simulations; modeling MEMS at a variety of levels of abstraction; and floating point arithmetic. There are folders for other topics, too, but those are mostly thin folders each containing a few papers related to a side project or a secondary line of inquiry.

One of the papers I uncovered during my sifting was a short piece entitled Research as a Life Style, written for the Retrospective section of Applied Mechanics Review (Aug 97). The author is the eminent fluid dynamicist George Batchelor; it was a name I recognized when I happened across the article about a year ago while looking for something else, and it is a name I know even better now that I've spent a semester using Batchelor's fluid dynamics text. It's an entertaining article and a pleasant counterpoint to some of the essays by Barzun which I've read recently.

A few sentences particularly plucked my interest:

  • On the central role of research in a life, sometimes at the expense of other activities:
    Any assessment of the nature of scientific enquiry as a human activity must recognize that research is more than an occupation or a career. One becomes hooked on research, which can be, an usually is, a demanding and compelling search for knowledge which dominates your life.
    I do not know how to reconcile these two aspects of the life of research, firstly, the pure bliss accompanying a bright idea or clarification that comes as a consequence of a long period of concentration, and secondly, the guild accompanying demands made on family and friends and the loss in personal relationships. Perhaps the best a scientist can hope for is a compromise rather than a reconciliation.
  • On how collaborations begin:
    ... since I knew him [Alan Townsend] to be a first-rate physicist and an electronics wizard I suggested that he too should work on turbulence under G.I. Taylor and that we should collaborate. He said he would be glad to do so, although he wanted first to ask two questions: one was What is turbulence? nand the other was Who is GI Taylor? My answers were evidently satisfactory, for the outcome for both of us was a marvelous decade of turbulence research which began in 1945.
  • On my new favorite coffee table design:
    The Department at which I work at Cambridge encourages this informal communication by providing coffee tables with laminated tops on which people may draw or write, and I believe this simple device has endeared the Department to several generations of young scholars.
  • On scientific writing:
    Reading a paper is a voluntary and demanding task, and a reader needs to be enticed and helped and stimulated by the author. Contrary to popular opinion, the words in a theoretical paper need to be understood no less than the equations for the effective communication of science.
    If the present poor average standard of composition in scientific papers is to be raised, and if the preparation of a paper is to be turned into a minor art form, as is desirable in view of its dominant role in scientific communications, we shall need to proclaim openly and often the importance of good writing.

And that, I think, is enough for the day.

  • Currently drinking: Chamomile with lemon
  • Currently nibbling: Freshly baked cranberry-carrot bread