What now-obselete scientific technique, tool, or practice do you miss most?

In an old post, Meghan asked “What is (or will be) your old school science cred?” The scientific thing you’ve done that, in future, will make you seem really old connect you to a bygone era. Here, I want to ask a related question: what bit of your old school science cred do you miss most? What now-obselete technique, tool, or practice do you (secretly?) wish you could return to?

I had to think about this one for a bit, because there are plenty of things I don’t miss. I don’t miss physical slides and the associated slide carousels, for instance. I don’t miss printing out five copies of my ms and mailing them to the journal for consideration.

I miss physical hard copies of journals, mostly because I miss making notes in the margins of the papers I read. And I’m glad that I’m old enough to once have had a paper listed on the cover of Ecology. I know it sounds a bit silly, but I was proud of that. Once a journal goes online-only, it either stops having a cover, or else making the cover doesn’t feel special any more (at least, it doesn’t to me, your mileage may vary).

I kind of miss Statview, my go-to stats package as an undergraduate and graduate student. Yes, R is objectively better in various ways–much more versatile, better for reproducibility, etc. But for doing the simple exploratory and hypothesis-testing analyses appropriate to simple experimental designs, and producing the associated simple figures, Statview was really convenient. I now use Excel to do exploratory stuff I used to do in Statview, which is slower and worse. But the R Commander package is similar enough to Statview that I don’t miss Statview too much.

I also miss Mathcad, Mathematica’s competitor. Or rather, I thought I missed Mathcad, but while writing this post I was shocked to learn it still exists!* Mathcad was is slower and less powerful than Mathematica, but much easier to learn. It had has a unique interface, like a computerized scratchpad. You could type any math you wanted, anywhere on the screen, in notation that looked like math (contrast Mathematica’s command line interface). You could also insert simple programs and various sorts of graphs. And you could drag your equations, graphs, etc. around the screen. When commanded, Mathcad would execute/evaluate everything you’d written, starting at the upper left and reading left to right and top to bottom. It was much more convenient than R for systems of ODEs, and it could also do symbolic math using the embedded version of Maple. R only does symbolic math kludgily.

*Mathcad was bought by PTC and then not updated for years and the support forums were shut down, so I assumed–apparently naively!–that Mathcad was on the way out. But no, it retains a market among engineers. Now that I know it still exists, I may have to buy it!

26 thoughts on “What now-obselete scientific technique, tool, or practice do you miss most?

  1. I miss Papyrus – no, not the paper-like material, I’m not THAT old. It was a piece of reference-management software that did a really astonishingly good job but was abandoned by its maker… and now we migrate databases every year to the flavour of the month, with a nonzero error rate each time and none are really improvements. Cue fevered evangelism by prophets of current package X in 3, 2, 1…

  2. I miss receiving reprint request postcards. I also miss sending them out then getting back a big stack of papers in a proper envelope, with a covering letter and at least one of the reprints signed by the author. A stack of papers that I actually had a time to read….

    It all felt as though I was physically in touch with the other people doing research in my field. Of course I feel in touch via social media, blogging, etc. But having paper in my hand that had been touched and written on by other researchers….well…..a PDF just doesn’t cut it.

    It’s kind of ironic that we communicate with one another more than ever before, but future historians of science are going to have less material to work with unless they can somehow access long-deleted emails…..

    • When I studied abroad as an undergrad at the University of Ghana in 2011, we (er, they) used mouth pipetting to transfer some dyes in a Plant Physiology class.

      FWIW, the library was just transitioning away from a card catalogue at that time, too, so for very specific resources you still had to use that.

  3. Reading print journals/books in my own corner of the library and the card catalog. Getting mail- I still get the occasional ILL book loan, but that is about it. I would say keeping my own literature catalog, but I got fed up with Endnote and I’m back to cataloging papers the way I used to. Now that I think of it, it seems that the way I communicate, research, analyze, write, and read has changed a lot, but the field tools have not changed much at all. I think I’ll cling to my yellow field notebook all the tighter now.

  4. I don’t miss going to the library with my stack of index cards and searching through volumes and volumes of the most recent quarter of Science Citation Index

    I don’t miss meticulously printing and cropping (with an x-acto knife) captions and figures and text blocks and rubber cementing these to poster boards

    I don’t miss looking up in a statistic in notebook or in an Excel table or in a text file or re-doing the analysis in JMP in order to write my results section in Microsoft Word.

    I don’t miss Microsoft Word.

    I don’t miss endless fights about random vs. fixed effects and consequences on p-values.

    I don’t miss p-values.

  5. When my department went over to shared offices I thought I’d miss my old office, but I didn’t. On our new campus we’ve now instigated a system of hot desking and I’m not sure if I’ll miss having my own desk or not….

  6. I once had to repeat some soil texture analyses using the pipette method because a reviewer and editor refused to believe that I could accurately get to a textural class (SiCL, CL, SCL etc) using hand texturing techniques in the field. Maybe the reviewer couldn’t but maybe they lacked practice. Having done hundreds, perhaps thousand of such determinations in the field I knew that I could. Later on I correlated my hand texturing results with the lab-determined results for an R of over 0.85. But lesson learned; no more hand-textured estimates in submitted papers for me.

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