Monday, May 4, 2009


I remember the first time I saw it. A classmate of mine in undergrad turned in a final report for a class, and it was beautiful. I had never seen a more professional looking lab report. I was on his team, but I had not been a part of the writing, so I had no idea how he managed such a thing. The equations were neatly laid out, in perfect Greek script - the margins and sections were flawless, and I thought for sure he had spent hours wrangling with Word.

To my amazement, when I asked about it he pulled up a huge programming script, and declared that was our paper.

Welcome to the world of LaTeX.

I didn't see it again until I reached grad school (that undergrad classmate was always a closet overachiever...). In math class, I saw a good percentage of homework assignments turned in as typed documents - which struck me as odd at first, because everybody hand-writes math homework. Who wants to try Microsoft Equation Editor for an entire linear algebra assignment?

Then I took a closer look, and recognized the impeccable formatting and clean symbolic math that LaTeX handles so well.

LaTeX is indeed a programming language, but it comes with some simple WYSIWYG back end processors for those like me that don't want to learn yet another language. As with any new thing, there is indeed a learning curve. But it turns out that here at World's Best School, there are enough people at the intersection of a) geeks b) homework and project intensive classes c) overachievers and d) people with bad handwriting, that LaTeX is almost expected.

And the reason that those people were using it for homework is because once you have gotten over the learning curve, why not use it when it makes your work look so good?

So for my Master's thesis, this is what I have been using. I use MatLab to produce my figures, and Lyx to compile on top of LaTeX for my thesis.

And, might I say, my thesis is beautiful. And unlike Word it never loses a figure, reorganizes sections, reorders bibliography sections, or has out-of-place tables.

One of my labmates has an undergraduate research assistant who had a similar reaction just recently - why isn't everyone using this? She has been working on her bachelor's thesis in Word, and has the majority of it done.

So she asked yesterday if she can do her thesis in LaTeX - but it turns out that she has never used LaTeX, and doesn't have any of the software installed.

Oh, and the thesis is due Friday.

Did I mention the majority is already done in Word?

We tried to talk her out of it, but she's determined... we'll see how she thinks by the end of today....


  1. The majority of the math courses at my school require the homework to be handed in on LaTeX. I dove LaTeX a few weeks ago to make a poster of my research (it came out fabulous). I love how you can use PDF's of pictures within the document to get the best resolution possible on huge documents like posters... Next step is to get the bibliography libraries set up...

    I can't wait until I can fully wean myself off of MS Word..

  2. I was lucky enough to date (and then marry) a physics major: the physics department at our school was very intent on LaTeX, so I learned it along with him. I wrote my undergrad thesis in LaTeX. If your school has a thesis template, I think she could easily convert it from Word.

    I always love spreading the gospel about LaTeX. I try to teach it to as many people as I can.

    Also, you should check out Beamer instead of PowerPoint. My husband likes it a lot, and I'm going to use it for my next presentation.

  3. Amen! The bad handwriting part made me laugh. I remember getting reprimanded in school for my chicken scratch, and now here we are in the electronic publishing age... who cares? So funny in retrospect.

    Now I just need to figure out how to get my PI to let me use LaTeX. ARGH.