Monday, July 11, 2005

Writing it all down...

One of the most important, but most boring, parts of astronomical research is writing up what you have learned and publishing it in a professional journal (these are akin to the "New England Journal of Medicine"; if you aren't a professional in the field, you probably won't understand a word).

I've been working for a while nowon writing a couple of pretty long papers. It takes longer than you might think. For example, making a single graph can take most of a day. How can I convey as much relevant information as possible without making things too cluttered? Should I use color? Would a bar graph work better? When the graph goes on the page, will I still be able to tell the difference between triangles and squares?

Although this sounds boring (and it is!), it is vital to scientific research. If I discover new galaxies or a new type of star, what does it matter if I cannot both tell other people about it and convince them that my work is correct? That latter part is often the hardest. We spend more time testing and re-testing our data than we do at the telescope taking more pictures. And when we finish a paper, it has to get approved by one or more fellow astronomers who weren't involved with the work in the paper. If they aren't convinced, the paper doesn't get published. Often just a little tweaking is necessary; sometimes substantial work is needed. Rarely a paper just will not get published because it is wrong.

Once my papers are done, I will feel quite good about all the work I've put in. In the short term, though, it's back to the grindstone...

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