Memories of My First Paper

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.

23 Responses to “Memories of My First Paper”

  1. The referee’s report on my first paper still haunts me…

    • The referee of my first paper (i.e the one above) actually signed his report…

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        So you can reveal the name. 🙂

        There is a famous paper the long report on which wasn’t signed, but that report cited just one other single-author paper. 🙂

      • I’m pretty sure I thanked the referee by name in the acknowledgements.

      • I recall when as a referee you had the option to have your name revealed to the authors; don’t think that is the case anymore and they are always anonymised.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        That’s certainly not the case everywhere. Presumably the referee can let the author know if that is desired, even if it isn’t an option as part of the refereeing process.

        A few journals have double-blind refereeing, where that obviously wouldn’t be possible, but they are a minority.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I once wrote to an author in whose paper I had corrected a major mistake, but which was good afterwards (and was published), disclosing myself as referee. This started a cordial exchange.

      • I remember being vaguely astonished when I found out referees were anonymous!

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Einstein was astonished when he learned that referees even existed!

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Einstein refereed plenty of patent applications.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “Einstein refereed plenty of patent applications.”

        Right, but he was genuinely surprised when he learned that the Physical Review had sent his paper to a referee (Robertson) and was quite angry about it and never published there again.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        On the other hand, in some old journals one sometimes reads “communicated by…”. In at least one case, one such paper was published as submitted, with no feedback. OK, perhaps it didn’t need any. I don’t know how common that was.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        “I’m pretty sure I thanked the referee by name in the acknowledgements. “

        I bet that you didn’t think then that he would be reading your blog now. 🙂

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “I’ve taken that lesson to heart and have never insisted – unlike some supervisors – in putting my name on my students’ work.”

    An admirable stance. The other extreme was the wife of former Rumanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu who was on every Romanian chemistry paper. Sort of like some macho politicians who let their underlings hunt a lot of game then pose with it as if they had killed them all.

    To be fair, some don’t really want to be on but note that funding agencies judge the success of a grant, and hence the probability to get funding in the future, perhaps for the same students, by the number of papers with the grantholder’s name on them. 😐

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I remember Kim Il-Sung appearing as an author on a North Korean physics paper. I don’t know how common a name it is.

  3. Interesting that David Politzer (2004 Nobel laureate) also worked on this topic. Didn’t know that before

  4. My advisor, Joe Silk, didn’t put his name on papers I wrote as a grad student if he didn’t think he had contributed significantly. I agree that it’s an admirable thing to do. In my opinion, even if his only contribution was to suggest the problem and possibly to put me in touch with others who’d be good collaborators, that in itself is enough to merit a good deal of credit.

    Of course, Joe hardly needed my paltry publications to pad his CV. At a Festschrift for him some years ago, someone pointed out that he had averaged one paper every two weeks for something like 40 years (at the time — more than 50 years now).

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      But not that many single-author papers. 🙂

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      What an interesting group that was: yourself, Max Tegmark, Douglas Scott, Martin White, Wayne Hu, Naoshi Sugiyama. That’s just off the top of my head; he must have had several others over the decades.

      Although not original research, Isaac Asimov managed about a book every two weeks at the height of his powers.

  5. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Youngsters might wonder about the pinkness. In the old days, the Letters section of MNRAS was printed on pink paper, thus the “P” one sometimes sees in references. Sadly, the background in the PDF files is white.

    Your picture above is from ADS as well, but appears to have been downloaded some time ago.

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