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Posts Tagged ‘papers

“Living with those who have lived and the companionship of those who are no longer alive… archives are a kind of site in the sense of an archaeological site”*…

Inside cover of David Foster Wallace’s annotated copy of Don DeLillo’s Players. The papers of both writers are collected at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas

Why do the archives of so many great writers end up in Texas? D.T. Max dives into what is, arguably, America’s “hottest” literary archive, and chronicles the acquisition strategy of its director…

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the literary archive of the University of Texas at Austin, contains thirty-six million manuscript pages, five million photographs, a million books, and ten thousand objects, including a lock of Byron’s curly brown hair. It houses one of the forty-eight complete Gutenberg Bibles; a rare first edition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which Lewis Carroll and his illustrator, John Tenniel, thought poorly printed, and which they suppressed; one of Jack Kerouac’s spiral-bound journals for “On the Road”; and Ezra Pound’s copy of “The Waste Land,” in which Eliot scribbled his famous dedication: “For E. P., miglior fabbro, from T. S. E.” Putting a price on the collection would be impossible: What is the value of a first edition of “Comus,” containing corrections in Milton’s own hand? Or the manuscript for “The Green Dwarf,” a story that Charlotte Brontë wrote in minuscule lettering, to discourage adult eyes, and then made into a book for her siblings? Or the corrected proofs of “Ulysses,” on which James Joyce rewrote parts of the novel? The university insures the center’s archival holdings, as a whole, for a billion dollars.

The current director of the center is Thomas Staley. Seventy-one, and a modernist scholar by training, he is mercurial and hard-driving. Amid the silence of the center’s Reading Room, he often greets visiting scholars with a resonant slap on the back. In college, at a Jesuit school in Colorado, Staley pitched in a summer baseball league, specializing in a slow, sinking curve. His “crafty pitch,” as he calls it, was good enough to attract the attention of professional scouts. The Ransom Center, under Staley’s leadership, easily outmaneuvers rivals such as Yale, Harvard, and the British Library. It operates more like a college sports team, with Staley as the coach—an approach that fits the temperament of Texas. “People take a special pride here in winners,” Staley says. “They like success.” (After the Ransom bought its Gutenberg Bible, the center sent the Bible on a victory lap, displaying it at libraries, museums, and universities around the state.)…

A fascinating look into the (surprisingly competitive) world of literary archives: “Final Destination,” from @dtmax in @NewYorker.

(One archive that is not at the Ransom Center is that of Lou Reed. His widow and executor Laurie Anderson had originally intended to house the papers, tapes, and memorabilia there, but changed her mind when the Texas legislature passed a law allowing the open carry of hand guns on state college campuses. They are now at the New York Public Library– and the subject of an exhibit at The Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.)

* John Berger


As we turn every page, we might send archival birthday greetings to Henry Clay Folger; he was born on this date in 1857. A businessman and philanthropist, he founded (with with his wife, Emily Jordan Folger) the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., an independent research library (and archive) that houses the world’s largest collection of the printed works of William Shakespeare, and is a primary repository for rare materials from the early modern period (1500–1750) in Britain and Europe. The library is privately endowed, and is administered by the trustees of Folger’s alma mater, Amherst College.


“With my tongue in one cheek only, I’d suggest that had our palaeolithic ancestors discovered the peer-review dredger, we would be still sitting in caves”*…

As a format, “scholarly” scientific communications are slow, encourage hype, and are difficult to correct. Stuart Ritchie argues that a radical overhaul of publishing could make science better…

… Having been printed on paper since the very first scientific journal was inaugurated in 1665, the overwhelming majority of research is now submitted, reviewed and read online. During the pandemic, it was often devoured on social media, an essential part of the unfolding story of Covid-19. Hard copies of journals are increasingly viewed as curiosities – or not viewed at all.

But although the internet has transformed the way we read it, the overall system for how we publish science remains largely unchanged. We still have scientific papers; we still send them off to peer reviewers; we still have editors who give the ultimate thumbs up or down as to whether a paper is published in their journal.

This system comes with big problems. Chief among them is the issue of publication bias: reviewers and editors are more likely to give a scientific paper a good write-up and publish it in their journal if it reports positive or exciting results. So scientists go to great lengths to hype up their studies, lean on their analyses so they produce “better” results, and sometimes even commit fraud in order to impress those all-important gatekeepers. This drastically distorts our view of what really went on.

There are some possible fixes that change the way journals work. Maybe the decision to publish could be made based only on the methodology of a study, rather than on its results (this is already happening to a modest extent in a few journals). Maybe scientists could just publish all their research by default, and journals would curate, rather than decide, which results get out into the world. But maybe we could go a step further, and get rid of scientific papers altogether…

A bold proposal: “The big idea: should we get rid of the scientific paper?,” from @StuartJRitchie in @guardian.

Apposite (if only in its critical posture): “The Two Paper Rule.” See also “In what sense is the science of science a science?” for context.

Zygmunt Bauman


As we noodle on knowledge, we might recall that it was on this date in 1964 that AT&T connected the first Picturephone call (between Disneyland in California and the World’s Fair in New York). The device consisted of a telephone handset and a small, matching TV, which allowed telephone users to see each other in fuzzy video images as they carried on a conversation. It was commercially-released shortly thereafter (prices ranged from $16 to $27 for a three-minute call between special booths AT&T set up in New York, Washington, and Chicago), but didn’t catch on.


“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”*…


The first issue of the the first volume of the first scientific journal, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London

Scientific papers, at the very dawn of that writing form, hadn’t yet evolved the conventions we’re so familiar with today. As a result, the contents of that first volume (and those that followed) are a fascinating mix of the groundbreaking, the banal, and the bizarre. Some are written as letters, some take the form of essays, some are abstracts or reviews of separately published books, and some are just plain inscrutable…

For example, this contribution from Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry and a pioneer of the scientific method:

A New Frigorifick Experiment Shewing, How a Considerable Degree of Cold May be Suddenly Produced without the Help of Snow, Ice, Haile, Wind, or Niter, and That at Any Time of the Year – Robert Boyle (again!) (Phil Trans 1:255-261). The word “frigorific”, which Boyle apparently coined for this title, meant “producing cold”, and Boyle’s claim was that simply mixing ammonium chloride into water would cool the solution down. This doesn’t seem to actually be true (saltpetre is frigorific; straight ammonium chloride can keep water liquid below normal freezing point, but isn’t actually frigorific). But although Boyle’s title is a bit hyperbolic, and he does go on a bit, he describes his experiments quite lucidly, so it’s probably unfair to call this one a weird paper. Whether Boyle was right or wrong, here he was doing modern science…

Stephen Heard observes…

Boyle’s Frigorifick paper raises an important point: not every paper in the early Philosophical Transactions was weird, even if in a few case it takes a close reading to realize that. The oddities are interspersed with important observations (like those of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot) and descriptions of major advances (like Robert Hooke’s microscopic observations of cells). But the oddities are there by the dozen, and they give the impression of a freewheeling, chaotic, and perhaps somewhat credulous period at the birth of modern science. It was not yet quite clear where the boundaries of science were – where to draw the lines between science and engineering, or architecture, or alchemy, or wild speculation…

Sound familiar?

See more examples and learn more at “The Golden Age of Weird Papers.”

* Albert Einstein


As we scratch our chins, we might spare a thought for Max Born; he died on this date in 1970.  A German physicist and Nobel Laureate, he coined the phrase “quantum mechanics” to describe the field in which he made his greatest contributions.  But beyond his accomplishments as a practitioner, he was a master teacher whose students included Enrico Fermi and  Werner Heisenberg– both of whom became Nobel Laureates before their mentor– and  J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Less well-known is that Born, who died in 1970, was the grandfather of Australian phenom and definitive Sandy-portrayer Olivia Newton-John.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 5, 2016 at 1:01 am

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