Learning new things: LaTeX

I can usually get programs like Microsoft Word to format my documents so the way I envision the document in my head matches up pretty close to what I end up with on the screen. You know, however, that sometimes getting the document to look right can often take as much time as it takes to type the document in the first place.  If you add to that the hassle of trying to get equations for physics or chemistry to show up correctly, it's pretty easy to such down a lot of time simply knocking out a short and simple handout.

Last July, I caught John Burk's post on a new LaTeX1 package that makes writing physics equations much easier. Although I had been peripherally aware of LaTeX in the past, I really didn't know much. Since I had some extra time in the summer (and since I'm not teaching this year, freeing up more time), I decided to jump in and try to figure LaTeX out.

What is LaTeX?

Don't be fooled. LaTeX is not a word processor. It took me awhile to figure that one out. While you type in the text that you want to show up in your final document, you're also adding some code telling it exactly how you want your final document to look. Want a new section in your document? Type section{Section Title}. This automatically creates a section title with a larger bold font, and automatically adds it to your table of contents (if you have one).

Why bother?

Since I'm sciencey (is that how you spell sciencey?), I tend to use more formulas, symbols, and other weird notations in my documents than the average bear. As previously mentioned, getting these to work in pretty much any standard word processing software sucks. It's a major pain. Especially if there are special characters all over it. Even more so if you want the formulas to actually look right. LaTeX provides simple codes that allow you to make equations and symbols look exactly how you envisioned them in your head.

For example, typing
a=\dfrac{2(\Delta y)}{t^2}

will tell LaTeX to do this:
a=\dfrac{2(\Delta y)}{t^2}

If you'd like to see a full document in LaTeX, here's a plain text file that I wrote in a LaTeX editor. Here's the finished typeset product (pdf warning).

What I've learned

  • There's a learning curve. It takes awhile to figure (and remember) how to write in LaTeX as well as the different codes for symbols, parentheses, etc. If you're writing a document that's on a tight deadline it's not a good time to decide to experiment with LaTeX. When I started I sat down for a couple hours on a lazy Saturday afternoon and tried to figure it out. I've also committed myself to writing up all the lab reports I have to do this semester using LaTeX so I'll get the hang of things.
  • There's a lot of information online about LaTeX. If you don't know a command, you'll be able to find it by searching. As a bonus, you occasionally get some "interesting" search results due to LaTeX (the program) being spelled the same as latex (the rubbery material).
  • Once you get the hang of it, it's faster than messing about with Word. I've only been using LaTeX for a month and I'm already past the break even point. As a bonus, my documents have beautiful formulas that display correctly. I can only imagine things will get faster from here.
  • I doubt I'll use LaTeX as a teacher to create entire documents. I will use LaTeX as a teacher to insert formulas and symbols into documents and slides. I'll do a follow up post explaining specifically how I envision I'll use LaTeX as a teacher.
  • The "official" way to write it is \LaTeX, which of course, requires \LaTeX to make.



  1. pronounced "lay-tech," which of course makes total sense.     (back)