LaTeX — Necessary but Not Sufficient

Whenever I read papers with mathematical content not written in LaTeX, I immediately judge the content. Usually to be lacking. I know I shouldn't do this. But previous experience has shown this to be a useful heuristic.

What do I mean? For those outside the mathematical community, LaTeX is a mathematical typesetting language. You can think of it like a markup language (similar to HTML), but for making documents with lots of mathematics. Donald Knuth created TeX in 1978. HTML was created in 1990.

LaTeX is one of those things that you hate at first, then begin to tolerate, and eventually come to love. At least, that's been my trajectory.

And once you do start to love it, it becomes a shibboleth1 that separates the mathematically knowledgeable from those who, well, aren't2.

Here's a recent example from the arXiv: On the distribution of time-to-proof of mathematical conjectures3. This sounds like a cool idea. And the data the authors gathered probably took some time to collect. But then the analysis goes off the rails.

I won't go through how. I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

But the point is that the paper wasn't written in LaTeX. Much like this paper on how life predates earth4. Spoiler alert: if it does, this analysis certainly doesn't show it.

Aside: I should really start publishing things to the arXiv. If these papers are on there...

  1. Much like lower case xi.

  2. Admittedly, LaTeX is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a contentful paper. Take this amusing, but scientifically content-less, paper on zombie models. Beautifully typeset, but not likely to make a major contribution to the greater body of scientific knowledge.

  3. And then I learned the authors are from ETH Zurich's Department of Management, Technology and Economics. Okay, that makes a lot more sense.

  4. Leave it to the Huffington Post to take this story seriously. Then again, I'll hope people don't get their science news from the Huffington Post... But so did the Physics arXiv Blog. Oh...