Sunday, June 5, 2016

Wheeler vs. Dowling in the War of the Commas

In 1990, while still a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Garching, I was writing a paper with the John A. Wheeler and the Wolfgang P. Schleich, entitled, “Interference in Phase Space.” I had first met Wheeler years before, when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Texas, where I audited his course, “Quantum Measurement Theory,” taught jointly with Wojciech H. Zurek. When I asked Wheeler for permission to audit, he said to me, “How much trouble could one undergraduate student be?” 

Taking that as challenge, I would sit in the front and constantly ask questions until the graduate students threatened to take me out in the parking lot and beat me up. I finally told them all that I knew karate (at that time a yellow belt in tae kwon do) and they left me alone after that so I could still interrupt class.

The paper, “Interference in Phase Space,” was a review article on phase-space methods in quantum optics; a topic that Wheeler and Schleich began working on in Texas when Schleich was a postdoc there. My primary job on the paper was to type up the whole thing in TeX. (This was back in the day when women were women and men were men and we all wrote our own macro packages and had no need for that namby pamby LaTex.) I also helped with some of the calculations and preparing the figures. Even sometimes I had help with double-checking the English, as when Schleich accidentally translated the German nickname for Bohr’s Correspondence Principle, Bohr’s Zauberstab, as “Bohr’s Magic Stick” (instead of “Bohr’s Magic Wand”).

Wheeler refused to let anybody start writing the body of the paper until we had all the figures and figure captions done up to his liking. We would lay the figures end to end and endlessly discuss their ordering, the captions, the style of the drawings, etc. In this way we had a very clear storyboard of the paper long before I started typing the main text. This is a very useful technique that I still use to this day, especially with students and colleagues who have writer’s block.

Schleich and I were working in Garching, Germany, and Wheeler was back at Princeton. As I typeset the manuscript, which eventually ran to nearly 50 pages, I would fax drafts of it to Wheeler to mark up and fax back to me to make his changes. We must have had done nearly 20 rounds of this faxing back and forth. Of course, being the junior author, I mostly implemented Wheeler’s changes as were given to me, but for one particular typesetting bone of contention. When Wheeler would refer to a short snippet of mathematics (that followed the noun that defined it) let us say “The variable x is inserted into the function f(x) in order to....,” he would put these math terms in parenthetical commas, e.g., “The variable, x, is inserted into the function, f(x), in order to….”

If you have read Knuth’s big book of TeX or various physics author style manuals, you learn that putting short math expressions like this in commas is considered old fashioned and is frowned upon. Figuring that the Editors would delete these commas in the final typesetting at the Annalen der Physik, I simply left them out of the manuscript. 

In that way then the battle with Wheeler over the commas had begun.

I would diligently fax the 50-page draft of the manuscript to Princeton, over and over again, sans the parenthetical commas around the short math, and Wheeler would send back his revised draft where, by hand, he would painstakingly add each and every one of those mission commas back in again. One must realize in a 50-page theoretical physics paper there were thousands of such corrections in each round. Just writing the commas in, alone, must have taken him hours in each review.

Finally he had enough. One day my office phone in Germany rang and it was Wheeler, calling long distance from Princeton, and he was understandably quite upset. “Dowling, he growled into the phone, why are you not putting my commas back into the manuscript!?” I replied, evenly, “Prof. Wheeler, putting parenthetical commas around such short math expressions in a physics journal is old fashioned and is recommended against in the journal’s style guide. Besides, the editors will just remove them.”

Stunned into a moment of silence, Wheeler then barked back, “I have been putting parenthetical commas around my short mathematical expressions since before you were born!” I paused, and then answered, firmly, “Perhaps so, Prof. Wheeler, but it is I who is typing this darn 50-page manuscript!”

He hung up on me.

I won the battle. In the end the commas stayed out. (I don’t think Schleich ever knew about this battle.) Some years later, in the mid-1990s, I ran into Wheeler at a conference reception. I went to say hello but at first he did not recognize me. So I said, “Wheeler, it’s me, Dowling — the smart-mouthed postdoc who would never put your commas back in our manuscript!” Wheeler’s jaw dropped and then, just when I though he was going to punch me, he started to laugh, and then he patted me on the back. “Dowling! You know you know that fight over the commas nearly put me in a coma?” Then I laughed too and wandered off to the bar.

That was the last time I ever saw Wheeler.