Monday, May 28, 2007

Would Einstein Use a Spell-Checker?

Many people are fond of asking whether today's academic culture and rules would stifle or squelch Einstein's genius. I think he would do just fine, but even if not, I really think it is time to stop using him as an example. Would Einstein have written his brilliant papers if .. ? etc.

One of the most annoying Einstein comparisons is: "Einstein couldn't spell". I don't know whether he could or couldn't, and I am sure that spelling ability does not correlate absolutely with intelligence. However, whenever one of my students tries the "Einstein couldn't spell either" excuse on me, I ask them whether they think Einstein would have used a spell-checker before giving a document to his advisor. Perhaps geniuses are above spell-checking?

Maybe so, and maybe I am stifling genius left and right by expecting a basic level of technical editing before a student gives me a manuscript to read. I don't expect the content to be perfect -- that's something to work out through discussion and revision -- but it's a lot easier to revise content when the technical elements are not a mess.

In fact, I think it can be a bit of a morale boost and motivator if you make your manuscript draft 'look' like a paper early on. Maybe that makes it scarier for some people if what they've written starts to look like an official paper too soon, but I like to deal with the technical elements from the beginning.

After spending considerable time today slogging through and fixing references in a student's manuscript (long story why he isn't doing this himself), it is clear to me yet again that having a good system for references and other technical elements from the beginning really saves a lot of time (for everyone involved, genius and non-genius alike).

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

After spending considerable time today slogging through and fixing references in a student's manuscript (long story why he isn't doing this himself), .

I'd be really interested in hearing this long story!

hypnose said...

Many senior people think that ed Witten's genius rivals Einstein's. He has a quite successful career including a national medal of science so, yes, Einstein would succeed in today's world however he would not have reported any of his discoveries to a scientific journal. He submitted his famous relativity paper from a patent institute to a scientific journal. In today's world, if you submit a paper from a gas station, no scientific journal would take a look at it. Science is much more institutionalized at present.

Suresh said...

I'd like to hear more about this long story as well. In general, I'm curious as to the balance between taking a manuscript and fixing the errors, or walking thru it with the student and showing them the problems: both of these appear to take the same amount of time (in fact the first may be quicker)

Jay said...

I used to think spell-check was the work of the devil, and my husband felt the same way about calculators. Well, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but not much. We've both mellowed; I use the spell-check - and even keep grammar check on in Word to catch extra spaces - and he sometimes uses a calculator. I agree that being able to spell doesn't correlate with intelligence, but using a spell-checker before handing something in should correlate with basic common sense.

It does bother me to read published writing - in books, which have presumably been copy-edited - in which no one checked the spell checker and apparently they didn't use the grammar checker. I don't like paying for books that are rife with they're/there/their errors.

Ambitwistor said...

hypnose: not true. I can recall some physics papers published from non-academic institutions, and one in Physical Review Letters (with 100+ citations) from a high school teacher.

hypnose said...

ambitwistor, please provide the citation for the paper in question. I am curious.

Dr. Shellie said...

FSP, I agree with you. Einstein has contributed much to science, but it's not clear that trying to emulate arbitrary aspects of his working habits would help me or anyone else at all.

dropout said...

The real question is if Einstein would have ever come up with the theory of relativity if he would have found the academic position he was looking for. He came up with relatively in his spare time while working in a patent office. It was only after publishing his theory of special relativity that he was able to obtain an academic position. In my opinion, he probably wouldn't have come up with relativity if he was working in academia rather than a patent office -- he had more creative freedom and less pressures working on physics in his spare time.

Before I went to grad school in the physical sciences everyone told me that science usually can't keep the most talented and creative people -- they end up leaving without their PhD's. I never really understood why, but now I do. Academia isn't a healthy environment for most overly creative people. If it was I'd probably still be there.

virologista said...

Er, did the student not use endnote?

I submitted my first paper this year, and I gave my advisor what was a good draft. But, as he has done to most of the other students, he slid a copy of Strunk & White's "Elements of Style" across his desk to me, and told me to pay particular attention to the part about the use of passive voice (and how it is basically sinful). Of course, when I was editing a grant he'd written, I realized he makes all of the same mistakes himself...

Anonymous said...

Yes, Einstein couldn't spell and his inability in spelling is not respectful. Nevertheless, his story shows that it is possible that someone who couldn't spell made significiant scientific contributions. Therefore, advisors should not judge a student because he/she can not spell. After all, their responsibilities and your responsibilities to them are about science. Be responsible in science and be responsible in spelling are independent.

Dr. Lisa said...

I require a written component to my astronomy and physics courses. I do this partly in response to student attitudes that writing has no place in science courses and, thus, in science itself. Scientists primarily communicate via the written word. It is incumbent upon all of us to express ourselves clearly, and I believe this is a crucial part of the training of future scientists.

Anonymous said...

An inability to run spellcheck is just plain lazy. I now hand back documents to my students unread if they haven't been spellchecked. Their science might be great, but if they can't be bothered to spend 5 minutes spell checking then I am not going to waste time reading it!! I figured this approach was pretty hardline when I started it, but all spelling problems now seem to have vanished!

References I wouldn't fix myself though....

Female Science Professor said...

What if the manuscript had a looming due date for resubmission and the references weren't going to get checked/fixed if you didn't do it yourself?

Anonymous said...

Teachers enforcing a standard of scientific writing isn't bad at all. The issue is whether you enforce the same level of standard of research, which I think should be given even a higher priority. The reality is many of us concede to lower quality research but are critical to writing. That is unfair to those students who are commited to research but loose at other ends.

Orhan Kahn said...

That was very insightful.

When I think of Einstein in the modern world I think about Charlie Chaplin and the time he lost a Chaplin look-a-like competition.

Yvette said...

The professor who teaches freshman physics at my uni always takes the time at some point in the semester to say he'd like to appologize if the next Einstein is in his classroom. If he is, said prof is convinced that he's wasting his time. (Alas, the next Einstein will not be a she apparently...)

Speaking as someone who's escaped a rigorous physics department for a semester, I have to say I agree in a sense with the sense that academia can be bad at fostering creativity. I have made an unexpected amount of progress just thinking about my favorite physics problems lately, which is quite lovely really. Had I been back home, I wouldn't have done any of this because I'd be too busy studying for the GRE and burnt out from four physics courses.

Ambitwistor said...

hypnose:

Capovilla, Jacobson, and Dell, Phys. Rev. Lett. 63, 2325 (1989).

(I suppose in retrospect that wasn't the best counterexample, though, since the high school teacher wasn't the sole author.)

Female Science Professor said...

anonymous - Of course the quality of the research is the most important thing, but is it fair for a student to expect their advisor to fix all their spelling and other technical errors? I could spend all my time doing this.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, a student should not expect their advisor to fix any of their spelling or other technical errors. You may remind the student of the errors. Even if he or she doesn't hear your advise, the student will learn a lesson eventually. However, he or she should not suffer a bias from you on their research abilities.

Anonymous said...

I've never understood those who don't think spelling is important. Otherwise known as "well, this isn't an English class!" Presentation matters, and if I'm busy trying to figure out what the hell that word is, I'm going to lose the thread of your argument.

Anonymous said...

Using a spell-checker before handing in a paper is like taking a shower before coming to class.

Anonymous said...

2nd vote for EndNote!

gs said...

This post and its predecessor are off the front page, but this brought them to mind.

...The often-ignored side of the Kuhn theory is that for long stretches of time, the frontier of science and technology is ruled by diligent people who are quietly filling in the grand vision that spawned a new paradigm in the first place.

These people are heroes of their own sort, keeping the home fires burning until the reigning paradigm is played out. “The celebration of misfits promotes a worrisome anti-intellectualism and presents a distorted picture of the innovation process,” says Mr. Hollinger, the historian.


That makes sense, but IMO the next paragraph is seriously flawed:

Indeed, technological innovation — not to mention new scientific knowledge — is increasingly a result of large teams, working in routine, predictable ways. Individuals matter, but their contributions often can no longer be measured, nor can credit be accurately apportioned — even by the people working closest with them.