My First Contribution to the Scientific Literature.

I suddenly realized yesterday that I had forgotten to mark the important anniversary of an event that had immense impact on the field of cosmology. On 15th September 1986, just over thirty years ago, my first ever scientific paper was released into the public domain.

Here is the front page:

mnras_paper

This was before the days of arXiv so there isn’t a copy on the preprint server, but you can access the whole article here on NASA/ADS.

I know it’s a shitty little paper, but you have to start somewhere! I’m particularly sad that, looking back, it reads as if I meant to be very critical of the Kaiser (1984) paper that inspired it. I still think that was a brilliant paper because it was based on a very original idea that proved to be enormously influential. The only point I was really making was that a full calculation of the size of the effect Nick Kaiser had correctly identified was actually quite hard, and his simple approximation was of limited quantitative usefulness. The idea was most definitely right, however.

I was just a year into my PhD  DPhil when this paper came out, and it wasn’t actually on what was meant to be the subject of my thesis work (which was the cosmic microwave background), although the material was related. My original version of this paper had my supervisor’s name on it, but he removed his name from the draft (as well as making a huge number of improvements to the text). At the time I naturally assumed that he took his name off because he didn’t want to be associated with such an insignificant paper, but I later realized he was just being generous. It was very good for me to have a sole-author paper very early on. I’ve taken that lesson to heart and have never insisted – like some supervisors do – in putting my name on my students’ work.

Seeing this again after such a long time brought back memories of the tedious job of making and distributing hard copies of preprints when I submitted the paper and sending them by snail mail to prominent individuals and institutions. Everyone did that in those days as email was too limited to send large papers. Nowadays we just shove our papers on the arXiv, complete with fancy graphics, and save ourselves a lot of time and effort.

I was actually surprised that quite a few recipients of my magnum opus were kind enough to respond in writing. In particular I got a nice letter from Dick Bond which began by referring to my “anti-Kaiser” preprint, which made me think he was going to have a go at me, but went on to say that he found my paper interesting and that my conclusions were correct. I was chuffed by that letter as I admired Dick Bond enormously (and still do).

Anyway, over the intervening 30 years this paper has received the princely total of 22 citations -and it hasn’t been cited at all since 2000 – so its scientific impact hardly been earth-shattering. The field has moved on quickly and left this little relic far behind. However, there is one citation I am proud of.

The great Russian scientist Yacob Borisovich Zel’dovich passed away in 1987. I was a graduate student at that time and had never had the opportunity to meet him. If I had done so I’m sure I would have found him fascinating and intimidating in equal measure, as I admired his work enormously as did everyone I knew in the field of cosmology. Anyway, a couple of years after his death a review paper written by himself and Sergei Shandarin was published, along with the note:

The Russian version of this review was finished in the summer of 1987. By the tragic death of Ya. B.Zeldovich on December 2, 1987, about four-fifths of the paper had been translated into English. Professor Zeldovich would have been 75 years old on March 8, 1989 and was vivid and creative until his last day. The theory of the structure of the universe was one of his favorite subjects, to which he made many note-worthy contributions over the last 20 years.

As one does if one is vain I looked down the reference list to see if any of my papers were cited. I’d only published the one paper before Zel’dovich died so my hopes weren’t high. As it happens, though, my very first paper (Coles 1986) was there in the list:

reference

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2 Responses to “My First Contribution to the Scientific Literature.”

  1. ” At the time I naturally assumed that he took his name off because he didn’t want to be associated with such an insignificant paper, but I later realized he was just being generous. It was very good for me to have a sole-author paper very early on. I’ve taken that lesson to heart and have never insisted – like some supervisors do – in putting my name on my students’ work.”

    The supervisor was, of course, The Famous Writer. He has published many books and many papers, including many single-author papers, leaving no doubt as to who did the work and with no need to artificially up his count by attaching his name to his students’ papers if there is no other reason to do so.

    On the other hand, someone (both famous and a Nice Guy) once told me that grants pay (for) students, the grant is in his name, and he is evaluated by how many papers come out of that grant with his name on them. So, even if he disagrees with the system and would rather leave his name off, doing so would bite the hand that feeds him and his students.

    • Actually, at least in the UK, PhD students are not funded by research grants. They are funded by a separate route, that only very indirectly takes account of the supervisor’s publication history.

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