What Does Research Look Like Now?
Updated: Dec 13, 2019
The photo shows a portion of the books on the shelves in my home office. There are numerous text, reference and general reading works on various topics in physics and mathematics. Most of them were purchased by me, some borrowed from professors and libraries. In the collection are even (this will definitely date me with the younger readers) Schaum’s Outlines for Laplace Transforms, Complex Variables, Linear Algebra and a couple others. Also on these shelves are volumes of binders of reference papers, lecture notes, homework problem sets, and pages of handwritten calculations and programming code. This is the stuff that you should have in your toolkit if you do research (I guess the internet or an app replaced the Schaum’s Outline Series).
Let me clarify that I am not anti-technology; the word technology is in my job title, but I am pro-discovery. Discovery of the works that preceded the works that are the subject of study by an individual. These foundational works aid in putting a research project into perspective. Research of days not so long ago started with shaking down your advisor for copies of papers she/he had, reading and highlighting the relevant information in those papers, and then a trip to the library.
*By the way, it is always very convenient and helpful to be near a national research facility if one is studying a pure or applied science; they have almost everything published in the last 100 years.
Upon arrival at the library, the thousands of volumes of journals are overwhelming at first; who knew there were so many specialties within a given discipline? That’s why there is a need to plan some sort of strategy. This endeavor is not an outing comparable to ordering food from a drive-through; this requires a series of looking for needles in haystacks, finding pieces of a puzzle and figuring out if or where they fit, and weeding and sorting through what you thought was useful to determine the relative individual worth of documents. This is an iterative process and each visit could take hours, so the strategy is to compile a list of what you think you need and prioritize. Each item on that list will take you through the process that I just described.
That is not a bad thing, that’s what research is/was. Most importantly, the work required to do the work that one is pursuing is the most valuable part in the quest for knowledge. Now the tedious but extremely engaging process that was once used, has been mostly replaced by points and clicks. In this isolated process there is no research community to actively confer with, other than on social media sites. Furthermore, I think most HS and undergraduate students believe that Wiki is the authoritative source for all things scholarly.
I wanted to get #my2cents in on this matter because I am working on an important mission; re-writing my dissertation for human consumption. While writing, I needed to look up the atomic number for gold and some other elementary values that aren’t in the original work, for verification. That was when I redeveloped my old habits, walked over to my bookshelf and started looking. I found what I needed, but I lingered a little longer and looked through some texts that I hadn’t opened in years. I smiled when I opened up my undergraduate physics text by Halliday & Resnick and found an autographed copy of Robert Resnick’s Misconceptions about Einstein, and laughed when I saw that the price of the hardback text back in 198_ was only $29.80 new.
I started this essay with a question that I don’t know the answer to. What I do know is pursuit of scholarship is a good thing, no matter what the methods. Sometimes it is necessary and fulfilling to consider taking the path less traveled. I can promise you that it is more rewarding.