In the summer of 1988 I was finishing my PhD thesis at Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy. Then—and maybe now, too—the rules stipulating the physical appearance of an astronomer’s thesis were pleasingly light in number and exactitude: The book had to be hardbound, the paper acid-free, and the total number of words below 60 000.
Taking those stipulations as an opportunity to relieve the toil of describing my research, I decided to design a good-looking thesis. Fortunately, the typesetting program TeX had arrived at the institute. Even more fortunately, one of my grad student predecessors, Sterl Phinney, had bequeathed a set of TeX macros. I had the tools to implement my decision.
A trip to the institute’s venerable library revealed that most theses were typewritten, double-spaced, and printed on one side of each page. Consequently, a typical thesis was as thick as Martin Chuzzlewit.
I don’t know about you, but if I’m to read 60 000 words, I’d rather they were arranged on pages like a published, typeset novel, rather than like an author’s prepublication manuscript. I can’t remember which novel I was reading at the time, but I measured its mean number of words per line and its number of lines per page. My thesis would have the same.
Using both sides of a page doesn’t make a book or thesis easier to read, but it does make it thinner. Paul Dirac’s 1926 Cambridge thesis was famously short—just 17 pages. My thesis, which analyzed x-ray observations of two neutron-star binaries, could never match Dirac’s terse profundity, but if it was double-sided, it would be among the slimmest in the institute library.
The photo shows a two-page spread from chapter 3. You can see some of my design elements: running heads for the thesis (left) and chapter (right); generous margins to avoid overlong lines and pages; figures and tables embedded in the text.
Besides displaying my vanity, I’m not sure what my attention to graphical design accomplished. But I like to think that my goal of enhancing readability was appreciated by my examiners and by the small number of other people who read the thesis.
My thesis popped back into my mind yesterday when I was browsing through the latest issues of the two magazines I contribute to, Physics Today and Computing in Science & Engineering. Articles in both magazines can be somewhat tough and technical, but they look good, thanks to the professionals who lay them out: Elliot Plotkin and Rita Wehrenberg at PT and Monette Velasco at CiSE.
I have no doubt that their attention to graphical design is appreciated—and not just by me.