Thursday, June 7, 2012

Trends and Community

Exams are finished! I'm not sure it's possible to adequately express my glee about this in writing. I am not an exam person. (Lest you think that redundant, let me assure you that I have on occasion met people who do handle exams with poise and grace.) Presently I will go home, see my family and laze around reading analysis textbooks. In the meantime, I am working at university, which is quite* cool.

The work I'm doing involves going way back through the archives of academic journals and sorting out which papers are relevant for one of my lecturer's projects. One of the side-effects is that I get to see a little bit of the flow of physics research over time.

It's weird to see the papers people were writing when I was still learning to read, all put together in a sort of conversation. It's no surprise that people were doing physics when I was a kid (I've certainly used papers from way before I was born before), but it is a little odd to find this community that I can never really know preserved in the pages (or pdf files) of the Am. J. Phys.

It's also interesting to see how different topics go in and out of vogue. There's always a certain amount of mechanics, quantum physics, electromagnetism and so on, but there are time periods when certain things crop up repeatedly and quite frequently. For instance there were a couple of years that saw a cluster of papers about the charge on a magnetised needle; during another phase it seemed quite fashionable to deal with surface tension problems. I think it's fascinating that such trends exist.

I'm not sure if these patterns have much direct practical application, but I do think they're useful in getting know physics. I recall once reading somewhere that before trying to participate in an internet forum, it can be helpful to 'lurk' and see how things are done there. I guess the academic equivalent is reading all the way back through the journal archives.
*Where 'quite' means 'extraordinarily, but that seems potentially like an over-the-top response, so I'll just say quite,'