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Writing Science

August 6, 2011

Today I’m not going to speak about how to write a scientific report, ways, nomenclature, paper structure… which one day I may speak about. Today I want to speak about the tools used for easing the writing, not by easing the content, but by easing the formatting.

As a student in a scientific career and as researcher beginner, I’ve been reading published scientific articles and writing reports for classes in the same fashion. Lots of scientific publications use LaTeX and GNUPlot and other common tools for easing their writing but as students we only use MS’s Word and Excel. It’s strange to me that I didn’t learn about this scientific professional tools by my teachers and I ended up learning about them by the internet and my older brother (who has some kind of Physics Degree and some strange letters at the end of his name 🙂 ).

LaTeX

So, what’s that LaTeX thing with that fancy way of writing? For those too lazy to follow the wikipedia link above, it’s a sort of meta-language and post-process application that turns plain text with some marks into a paper to publish in several formats including PDF and PostScript. Ok, now What does that mean? Let’s take a look at a very simple LaTeX document:

\documentclass{article}
\begin{document}
Some text at random.
\end{document}

Let’s look at the meaning of each sentence.

  •  \documentclass specifies the type of document we are writing from the list of templetes (user extendable) that come with the program. The supplied list includes: article, report, book
  • \begin and \end are used to begin and end an environment. In this case the document environment which contains the document. Everything outside the document environment should be settings.

That’s not very impressive, is it? So, why the fuzz? If you ever tried to write mathematical formulae with Word, you know the meaning of pain. At least before last MS Office version (2010) you had a nice interface in which you clicked what you wanted to add and nothing else. In LaTeX you just have to write whatever you want. Let’s expand the example above with another line:

\documentclass{article}
\begin{document}
Some text at random.
\begin{equation}
  F = \sum_{i=0}^n \frac{dp_i}{dt}
\label{Newton2}
\end{equation}
\end{document}

This new text introduces a new environment, equation, which is used for writing mathematical expressions. Also, the expression will be automatically numbered and put on a new line. The \label is an identifier for internal use referencing the equation, in this case Newton’s 2nd Law of movement: Force equals the sum of the variations of moment along time for all particles involved.

I just used this webpage for the formula rendering: http://www.codecogs.com/latex/eqneditor.php You can test your own code there. Also, any greek letter or mathematical symbol you may need can be written by its name, \delta for the non-capital or \Delta for the capitalised letter.

For more information in LaTeX see the Not So Short Introduction to LaTeX.

GNUPlot

GNUPlot is a program for plotting data. Most of the graphics you can find in a scientific article or publication are data plots and data regressions or fittings, which are the main representation tools in experimental sciences. GNUPlot is powerful for beautiful 2D and 3D plots. Also, the plotted graph can be saved in many formats including PNG and Encapsulated PostScript (eps) which is very useful for inclusion in LaTeX documents. Instead of a demonstration like before I’ll let you see the demos on the project’s web: http://www.gnuplot.info/screenshots/index.html

 

There’s a big community for both suites and many people has contributed to them both. You can find lots of LaTeX packages and scripts at the Comprehensive TeX Archive Network (CTAN) and many GNUPlot scripts on GNUPlot webpage.

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