Perfectionism and Errata: Publish or Perish
This past semester was probably my busiest one ever. This may explain why I haven't posted anything here since August. The main new thing I did this semester was to add to my usual slate an advanced physical chemistry course, in order to help out a colleague in chemistry who was taking on other tasks. To make up for this, I will have extra time for research next semester, but it did certainly make this past semester somewhat of a blur.
This course used a brand new edition of a classic text, Quantum Chemistry, by Donald McQuarrie (University Science Books, 2007). This text is unusual in that its first edition was in print for two and a half decades! Many university textbooks undergo a revision cycle of 2 to 4 years, which can mean you're getting up-to-date content, but often is little else than a money grab by the publisher. Since I was doing a one-time substitution for my colleague, I didn't choose the book. But at a conference in August when I mentioned to a colleague from Calvin College that I was teaching this course, she immediately asked, excitedly, "Are you using McQuarrie?" Thus I was affirmed that the book was indeed a classic.
Of course, errors do often creep in. Over the semester, I collected a list of errata, which I posted online. And as the semester wrapped up, I contacted the author to let him know how much I appreciate the book, showing him my list as well. This senior statesman in the field was ambivalent about being shown his mistakes, as you can see from his reply: "Thank you very much for taking the time to send these to me. I really appreciate it and would be pleased (sort of; each one is a stab in the heart) to receive any more that you find. By the way, in reading over your range of comments, you seemed to have taught a hell of a good course."
I can imagine how frustrating it must be for a textbook author, after spending years putting his heart and soul into a publication, to see that people are still able to find errors. I'm a bit of a perfectionist myself, and hate it when I find an error in something I've published. Perfectionism can actually hinder publication, and it takes a certain sense of humility to finally admit that there will be lingering problems in what we produce.
But it must also have been somewhat gratifying for the author to know that others out there are deeply engaged in what he has written. We actually drilled right down into McQuarrie's detailed theoretical analysis of the vibration-rotation spectrum of a diatomic molecule like HBr, enough to notice that on page 276 a minus sign had somehow failed to replace a plus sign. And we cared enough to post a correction and inform the author!
As I reflect on this, I am reminded of something I read a year or two ago in Morris & Petcher, Science and Grace (Crossway Books, 2006) about the responsibility for us academics to share what we've learned. We have to have the humility and vulnerability to lay aside our perfectionism and allow others to benefit from our experiences and expertise. If we don't publish, the idea may perish.
(By the way, did you find any mistakes in this blog posting?)