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Alternatives to solving physics/math problems by hand

  1. Dec 12, 2016 #1
    I suffer from an extremely rare congenital disease known as arthrochalasia (or EDS Type VII). Basically, it means that all of the ordinary collagen in my body is brittle and elastic. I've always had problems with long-winded handwriting - thankfully I eventually was allowed to use electronic typewriters and laptops in elementary/high school. Still, you can't really solve math and physics problems that way, so I've had to bite the bullet there. In recent years (I'm 24), my problems have gotten worse, I've lost a lot of strength and gained severe chronic pain, and joint pain arising mainly from handwriting is one of my most serious pain management issues. I've done all the obvious things - I use comfortable pens with virtually no friction, I try to use my left hand as well, etc, and it's been sort of managable so far. But the other week I noticed that my right thumb was hanging at an odd angle when resting and felt unstable, and it seems a ligament in the MCP joint must have broken without me noticing it. Typical dumb stuff you get with this sort of disease. You can't do plastic surgery on my ligaments, but I can wear a brace and eventually do joint fixation surgery, so I'm fine for now.

    However, this made me realize that at some point in the upcoming years I might have to find a way to work on problem solving without resorting to handwriting. I can use keyboard and mouse with far more ease than I can use a pencil, but firing up a text editor is a really bad substitute for pen and paper in physics.

    I can't be the first person in the history of the world with this sort of problem - is anyone here aware of any good software or any other solutions that could allow me to work on equations, figures, etc with reasonable efficiency in a potentially more gentle manner?

  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 12, 2016 #2


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    You can download a TeX editor - e.g. TeXStudio - so you can do all the calculations by typing. It takes a little while to get accustomed to the various commands, but it is an alternative. In addition I downloaded a tiny program (Autohotkey), which allowed me to redefine keyboard hotkeys by self defined control keys. E.g. I defined {} = Ctrl+N and \{\} = Alt+N which allows me to type in indices and sets in Tex quicker. It also has a quick on/off procedure in case you need the usual shortcuts.
    The studio has a preview option and creates pdf files, so you can as well print the output.

    Not sure, whether this will help you, but it's an option.
  4. Dec 12, 2016 #3
    Yeah, I've used TeX for the past 2.5 years of my undergrads for writing reports, but always solved whatever needed to be solved by hand, and then put said work into the editor. It beats a normal text editor for sure, and maybe it could be adapted for direct problem solving with some modifications. Worth keeping in mind! Thanks.

    Part of it is psychological I guess. It's easier to think about the problem you are trying to solve when writing by hand.
  5. Dec 12, 2016 #4


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    Yes. I like blackboards and chalks a lot. We're simply used to scribble some lines to solve problems. But habits change. E.g. I've observed that modern kids are far more comfortable using icons in their editors as e.g. IDEs. I never understood this: what benefit could it bring to learn all those fancy icons which are different with any new program. I always thought: I want to have scroll-down menus instead - I can read!

    In the end it's probably a matter of usage. The positive part is: Sometimes things clarify a lot quicker when we're forced to explain them. And typing is almost a form, and certainly a first step towards an explanation.
  6. Dec 12, 2016 #5
    Indeed. I mean, just having something like MATLAB or Mathematica, together with a quick processor, readily available where you can check that your solution exhibits reasonable behaviour numerically is a pretty huge change in approach. At least it makes me much more prone to start solving a problem using some very rough approximations or guesses, and then solving it more precisely after I know I have it "about right".
  7. Dec 12, 2016 #6


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    I've never used LaTeX for documents, only for equations on PF. Instead, for many years while I was still teaching, I used MS Word plus MathType to produce homework solutions and lecture notes, and work through derivations. In a long derivation, being able to copy and paste unchanged expressions from one step to another really helped me to avoid errors like dropping subscripts, exponents, factors, etc. I still use that combination occasionally for my own (non-PF) work, because I'm fluent in it. However, if I were starting from scratch now, I would look for a visual LaTeX editor.
  8. Dec 12, 2016 #7
    That sucks. Sorry you have to deal with this. I have no experience in the matter, so pardon me if what I'm saying doesn't apply. I wonder if you used some sort of tablet where you could just write with your finger on the screen, which should require only the lightest pressure, or if there is a pad type device that would work this way off screen.

    It seems that any solution will be slow going compared to the ideal. I always wondered how the hell Hawking does it, and I think the answer involves determination and a saintly amount of patience. (Alas, I also hear he does a lot of the math in his head).

    -Dave K
  9. Dec 12, 2016 #8
    It's a good thought, but trying to use a tablet with my fingertips wears badly on the outermost joints. I usually use a stylus. maybe that could be more gentle actually...
  10. Dec 12, 2016 #9
    Yes, I was thinking of that too. It shouldn't require the pressure of a typical writing instrument.

    I did also find that there is a speech-to-text school just for math, but it looks targeted towards lower level math. I could be wrong http://www.mathtalk.com/index.htm
  11. Dec 12, 2016 #10


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    @TubbaBlubba , do you use a Windows TabletPC (like a Surface) [with true digital ink] as opposed to an iPad?

    On Windows, you may find it useful to write customized scripts using https://autohotkey.com/ or https://www.autoitscript.com/
    which can interact with the GUI. For example, I can start a script to run a sequence of GUI operations [keystrokes, shortcuts, navigate menus] when certain conditions are satisfied. This is a timesaver for repetitive tasks. I use this with my TabletPC because my keyboard is not easily available.

    With some documentation and experimentation, these scripts may be able to work with alternative input devices.
    (e.g. https://autohotkey.com/board/topic/38578-wiihotkey-wiimote-wii-remote-controller-ahk/ )

    Of course, getting the scripts just right takes some trial and error.
  12. Dec 12, 2016 #11

    Larry Gopnik

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    From my personal experience (I have arthritis that means when it's colder I find it extremely difficult to move my fingers), I find using a tablet useful sometimes. Instead of using my fingers I put my hand in a fist and use the side of my little finger to write. It may not be possible for you since it's near the little finger knuckle but there's a chance it'll help!

    Once I sellotaped chalk to the bottom of my palm to write via the 'heel' part of my hand (What's that part called?) but again I'm not sure if it'd work in your case... And the sight of someone with sellotaped chalk seemingly hitting a chalkboard is an odd one I guess. It's not very elegant.
  13. Dec 13, 2016 #12
    Yes, I will definitely look into a tablet. I think I have an older Android tablet lying around my parents' place, but it might be worth investing in something new.

    Hahaha, I love that! It's exactly the sort of zany solution I'd come up with. Back a year ago when I had inadequate medication to control pain in my fingers, I got so many strange looks from my study mates when I'd lift coffee cups or sandwiches by pinning them between my lower palms.
  14. Dec 13, 2016 #13


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    I might as well add that although MathType uses a graphical interface, there are keyboard shortcuts for many operations, e.g. (under MacOS) cmd-L for subscript, cmd-E for superscript/exponent, cmd-F for fraction, cmd-R for root (radical), tab to move to the next field in an expression, etc. I can do a lot without taking my fingers off the keyboard: "y = y cmd-L 0 tab + v cmd-L y 0 tab t + cmd-F 1 tab 2 tab a cmd-L y tab t cmd-E 2" gives ##y = y_0 + v_{0y} t + \frac 1 2 a_y t^2##.
    Last edited: Dec 13, 2016
  15. Dec 13, 2016 #14


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    Devise your own system .

    Get a general purpose computer graphics package .

    Spend just a day or two configuring it to do what you want .

    Many possible setups but nice easy one is to prepare your own graphic symbols library and templates library and then just use mouse to pull whatever you want into place in the worksheet area . Manipulate and correct at will .

    Add in block text , sketches and formal drawings if you want using the standard package facilities ..
  16. Dec 13, 2016 #15


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    This reminded me on the following story.

    Once a professor of ours had a broken arm so he couldn't write on the blackboard. He decided to hold his first year lectures anyway and we, who held his tutorials had to step in. Of course we all could have held his lectures as a whole, but no, we have been commanded only to write for him. It has been as embarrassing as expected and we decided to do it in turn, so that nobody had to carry all the load. Imagine how frightened I've been as he told me that he was especially delighted by my performance.

    Think of this, if you should have similar ideas :smile:
  17. Dec 13, 2016 #16

    Stephen Tashi

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    What type of work do you visualize doing in upcoming years? Do you still have years of school ahead of you?
  18. Dec 13, 2016 #17


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    @dkotschessaa 's link to the mathtalk library (used with Dragon software) leads to some example videos:

    In addition, there is this project:

    Then there's OptiKey
    which may be adaptable to use custom virtual keyboards.
    Again, one could likely use AutoHotKey scripts with TeX-friendly editors.

    Handwriting recognized math:

    Here is an interesting 3D-input device:


    Of course, some work needs to be done....
    Last edited by a moderator: May 8, 2017
  19. Dec 14, 2016 #18


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    Should be able to get some dictation software and just dictate your math to a TEX editor... Seems like that should work, assuming it also isn't painful to speak.
  20. Dec 19, 2016 #19
    Sorry for not replying! Been super busy this past week...

    Ah, good idea. I need to get a bit creative.

    This spring I will begin my Bachelor's thesis, and then I have a Master's in (probably) Theoretical Physics, and then my PhD. So there will be a mixture of textbook problems, lab stuff, research... Apart from textbook problems, I need a general tool for visualizing, of course.

    Thank you for the links!!
    Last edited by a moderator: May 8, 2017
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