The best parts of physics research are when I get a chance to push out into the unknown, doing calculations no-one has done before. Sometimes, though, research is more…archeological.
Recently, I’ve been digging through a tangle of papers, each of which calculates roughly the same thing in a slightly different way. Like any good archeologist, I need to figure out not just what the authors of these papers were doing, but also why.
(As a physicist, why do I care about “why”? In this case, it’s because I want to know which of the authors’ choices are worth building on. If I can figure out why they made the choices they did, I can decide whether I share their motivations, and thus which aspects of their calculations are useful for mine.)
My first guess at “why” was a deeply cynical one. Why would someone publish slight variations on an old calculation? To get more publications!
This is a real problem in science. In certain countries in particular, promotions and tenure are based not on honestly assessing someone’s work but on quick and dirty calculations based on how many papers they’ve published. This motivates scientists to do the smallest amount possible in order to get a paper out.
That wasn’t what was happening in these papers, though. None of the authors lived in those kinds of countries, and most were pretty well established people: not the sort who worry about keeping up with publications.
So I put aside my cynical first-guess, and actually looked at the papers. Doing that, I found a more optimistic explanation.
These authors were in the process of building research programs. Each had their own long-term goal, a set of concepts and methods they were building towards. And each stopped along the way, to do another variation on this well-trod calculation. They weren’t doing this just because they needed a paper, or just because they could. They were trying to sift out insights, to debug their nascent research program in a well-understood case.
Thinking about it this way helped untwist the tangle of papers. The confusion of different choices suddenly made sense, as the result of different programs with different goals. And in turn, understanding which goals contributed to which papers helped me sort out which goals I shared, and which ideas would turn out to be helpful.
Would it have been less confusing if some of these people had sat on their calculations, and not published? Maybe at first. But in the end, the variations help, giving me a clearer understanding of the whole.