Formatting Woes (The Didactic Express: Day 6)

Of course, it is not enough merely to write a thesis; one must also ensure that it is formatted correctly. This being a demand from a scientific faculty at a major western university, what this means in practice is hours and hours wasted monkeying around with LaTeX.

Allow me to clarify that I am not talking about condoms or cinematic make-up. In this cOnTeXt (for those of you not in a STEM* field), LaTeX refers to a document mark-up language infamous among students of physics for two main characteristics.

The first is that it is not at all user friendly. If, for example, it is your intention to edit an equation (a demand that comes up rather frequently when writing physics theses, believe it or not), you must write the equation out textually using LaTeX commands. For example, if you wanted to write the continuity equation for matter flow in a fluid:

Where ‘$\rho$’ is density, ‘v’ is fluid velocity and ‘t’ is time.

you would need to manually code it as:


\frac{\partial\rho}{\partial t}+\vector{\nabla}\cdot(\rho\vector{v})=0


I mean, you get the hang of it after a while, but clearly there are an awful lot of places where you can screw up; and the only way that you can check to see whether the equation is properly formatted or not is by compiling the entire document into a PDF or PostScript and scrolling down to the relevant equation. It causes what should be a quick little writing job to take hours. And what’s more, if an equation happens to be too long to fit onto a page, LaTeX is not smart enough to format it for you; you need to enter the entire bloody thing as an array just so that it can have multiple lines. But forget about even editing equations: LaTeX doesn’t even format text well. You can’t, for example,Β  just hit “enter;” you need to type “\newline” in order to distinguish one paragraph from the next.

The other thing for which LaTeX is infamous is that, in spite of its gaping, multitudinous flaws, every single physicist of the older generation is absolutely and immovably convinced that it is the greatest fucking invention since sliced bread. I’m quite serious; I have had professors take it as a personal insult when I turn-in documents written with a different language; one can hardly even find user guides on the subject which do not begin with paeans of grateful praise to LaTeX’s creators.

The reason for this, of course, is quite simple: the older generation had to write their theses with typewriters, manually drawing mathematical symbols in by hand. Compared with this, TeX truly is a godsend. But, given that even the latest versions of Microsoft Word can completely school it in so far as ease of use and professional appearances are concerned, I think that my peers and I can be forgiven for being rather unimpressed.

The moral?

“Revolutionary” is relative.




About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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7 Responses to Formatting Woes (The Didactic Express: Day 6)

  1. zinemin says:

    Hm, I have to disagree with you on this one. I just spend this day painfully moving my research statement for a job application, which is a 20-page document with many figures, from word into latex. Yes, it was painful. But it looks so beautiful now. No word-document can ever produce such a beautiful manuscript, which is why I took the approximately 5 hours to do this. πŸ™‚
    Btw, when I started my PhD I was told to do even my presentations in latex. There is a presentation package, did you know that? That was a bit over the top. But I am quite sure that if you stay in science, you will see the beauty of scientific manuscripts in latex at some point. πŸ™‚

    • Everyone seems to say this after they use it often enough. I attribute this to Stockholm Syndrome.

      • zinemin says:

        You can blame my continuing use of Fortran90 to the Stockholm syndrome. πŸ™‚
        But latex is really so much better than word. The incidence of me cursing towards the computer screen has markedly fallen now that I am modifying my application in TeXShop instead of word. Finally the figures and captions don’t jump around anymore like crazy whenever I add a dash somewhere. Finally the document looks good whenever I print an intermediate version, which reduces my panic attacks.

  2. n8chz says:

    I don’t know TeX, but I’ve been told by people who do that it’s one of those softwares that has a steep-but-rewarding learning curve, sort of like vi. There’s a book titled Gentle Introduction to TeX, distributed of course as a .dvi file, but I can’t say I was able to get very far with it.

  3. n8chz says:

    $gt;-> > :grumble:

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