Archive for September 28, 2020

Memories of My First Paper

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on September 28, 2020 by telescoper

The death of John Barrow reminded me of a post I did some years ago about my first ever publication, which was published on 15th September 1986 while I was doing my DPhil at Sussex under John’s supervision. I’m mentioning
it hereby way of a postscript to yesterday’s piece.

Here is the front page:


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.

All right. 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.

This paper provides two excellent illustrations of what a good supervisor John was. I was a bit stuck with the project that John had assigned me and eventually admitted to him that I was having problems getting anywhere. I thought he’d assume I was useless and suggest that someone else should supervise me. But no. He said he realised it was a hard problem and sometimes it’s good to think about something else when you’re stuck. So he asked me to look at cluster clustering for a bit. I told him what I found and he said I should write this up as a paper, which I did. Most importantly however the trick I used in simplifying the calculations in this paper turned out to be applicable to the first problem, hotspots in the cosmic microwave background, which led a success in the project and to my second paper. We were both delighted that everything turned out well with that original project.

My original draft of this first paper had John Barrow’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 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 – unlike some supervisors – in putting my name on my students’ work.