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Writings of scientists on doing research

Zhigang Suo's picture

In a previous post, Learning to be a PhD advisor, I wrote about learning to do my job from students.  Over the years, I have also learned from writings of other scientists on doing research, its dynamics:  competition, despair, and exhilaration...  Here is a small sample that occurs to me this morning. 

  • J.D. Watson, The Double Helix.  This 143-page book, first published in 1968, was Watson's account of how he and others discovered the molecular structure of DNA.  A must read for all scientists and anyone who would like to know about research. 
  • G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician's Apology, Cambridge University Press, 1940.  This apology also speaks for those struggling to discover something both beautiful and useful.
  • G. M. Whitesides, Writing a paper. Advanced Materials 15, 1375-1377, 2004.  This three-page essay advocates a process:  start writing a paper at the same time you start a research project.  Every thinking person should read this essay, and give the process a try.  Whitesides is a University Professor at Harvard.  He has published about 1000 papers, and is the most cited living chemist.
  • S.M. Ulam, Adventures of a Mathematician, University of Californian Press, 1991. 
  • J.E. Oliver, The incomplete guide to the art of discovery, Columbia University Press, New York, 1991.  (Amazon page, or free download at eCommons of Cornell University).  Part of this book was discussed in an iMechanica thread.
  • Gian-Carlo Rota, Ten lessons I wish I had been taught.  This web page was pointed out in a recent post by Amit Acharya.  I must have read these lessons before in a book, for I remember Rota's teaching on publishing.  
  • S.P. Timoshenko, As I Remember, Van Nostrand, 1968.   
  • Richard Hamming, You and your research, transcription of a seminar given at Bell Communications Research, 1986.  Hamming won the Turing Award in 1968.
  • W. Bothe, Advice to Young Physicists, Physics Today, September 1958.  Bothe won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physics.
  • P.B. Medawar, Advice to a young scientist, Basic Books, 1979.  Medawar won the 1960 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Let us know about your favorite readings on doing research.


Andrew Norris's picture


Nice selection of books and articles. 

Recently I came across Letters to a Young Mathematician (2006) by the well known math popularizer Ian Stewart.  He wrote it partly as a modern alternative to Hardy's book - a book which I enjoyed when I first read it (a long time ago).   Stewart's book is quite different in style and content.  First its written in the form of a series of letters to a girl at school, then the same girl at college, and finally when she becomes an assistant professor at a large research university.  The material obviously progresses, ranging from early on where he discussses the virtues of simple mathematical reasoning to the later pages talking about the daily life of a professional academic.  

Stewart's book is also, by design more in tune with today's world.  While he found Hardy's book very useful for its time, he now thinks it is a bit depressing and insular - focused on pure mathematics with no place for applied mathematics.  Stewart on the other hand has good things to say about applied mathematics - which is nice to hear! 

I reread Hardy's book after Stewart, and ended up agreeing with him.  The book is quite dated, and in the edition I got from the library, I found the most interesting part was the postscript essay by C. P. Snow which described G. H. Hardy the person - a very interesting character.    E.g. Hardy did all his work in the morning and evening , keeping the afternoon free for cricket and tennis.   

zhan-sheng guo's picture

this book was published in 1957

author:William Ian Beveridge 

i like it very much. This is a great book for anyone starting in science and also for those who are going through a rough time when results are not coming along as smoothly as one might hope: it is a strong reminder that science really is an art!

Ying Li's picture

I have seen a check list from the website, but ,I miss who did it. It may be useful for young grauduate students. Therefore, I post it here.


Have you --------------?

1 spell checked the whole paper?

2 rewritten your paper at least three times?

3 stopped working on your paper for a day?To see and hear your words better when you look at it again.

4 put your main point into your title?

5 put your most significant findings first? Your gold first?

6 made it easy for readers to tell from your title and your abstract what is new and important about your work?

7 made sure all your verbs and subjects match?Plural verbs have plural subjects? Singular verbs have singular subjects?

8 spelled the same name exactly the same way throughout your paper?NOT “Bragg. . . .Brag”BUT BRAGG every time!

9 asked a friend or a native English speaker to read your paper and tell you what’s confusing or unclear?

10 changed nouns to adjectives when necessary?NOT “three dimension ordered array”BUT “three dimensional ordered array”

11 used active verbs rather than passive verbs as much as possible?NOT “The effects were investigated. . .”BUT “We investigated the effects”

12 found a way to break a sentence that’s much too long (over 4 lines) into two sentences?

13 broken up a paragraph that is way too long into two paragraphs?

14 tried to reduce your paper to its skeleton by making a one page outline of it?Might help you see if your paper is organized in the best possible way.  

15 Made all equivalent items look the same?NOT “scheme 1 . . . .Scheme 2”BUT “Scheme 1. . . Scheme 2”

16 removed all contractions, such as “can’t” or “couldn’t”? and changed them to “cannot” or “could not”?

17 checked the columns of numbers in your Tables and made all the decimal points in the same column line up vertically?

18 put a noun right after “this” or “these” every time you use one of those words?

19 moved “however” away from the beginning of sentences to a spot later in a sentence where it sounds better?

20 made all your abbreviations the same?NOT 48 hrs 3 hours 2 h five hBUT 48 h 3 h 2 h 5 h

21 used strong definite words?NOT “We have been interested in”BUT “We have focused on”

22 used parallel wording where you lead your readers to expect it?NOT “not only for fabricating. .but also for reduction”BUT “not only for fabricating. . .but also for reducing. . .”OR “not only for the formation of. . .but also for the elimination of. . “Don’t mix words ending in “ing” with “ion” words.

23 proofread your paper 3 times? At least!

24 read your paper aloud to yourself?

25 Did you use “later” when you meant “latter”?

26 looked for fruit in your figure captions? A fig is a fruit you can eat, but “Fig.” is the correct abbreviation for “Figure.” Don’t forget the period in the abbreviation.

27 proofread your references? Made sure that a journal title, no matter how often it occurs, is always spelled the same way?

28 followed the reference format for the journal you are submitting to?


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