Inserting scientific symbols on Mac OS 10.9

I am both a scientist (or at least a wannabe) and an avid Mac user. While the use of a PC is unavoidable for certain programs, especially during data analysis, all my word and image processing is done on my personal Mac. This has certain challenges along the way, including while doing scientific writing. While using ALT-Codes on a PC is very straight forward, using the equivalent (Unicode) on a Mac is slightly more convoluted.

This post will summarise the process required to input scientific characters in Mac word processing programs. Note that I use MacOS 10.9 and I am unsure of how this method works on earlier versions, however I can’t think of any reason it would not be backward compatible.

Enabling unicode input

1) Open system preferences
Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 10.23.24

2) Select ‘keyboard’
Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 10.25.403) On the next menu select ‘Input Sources’. From there make sure that the ‘Show input menu in menu bar’ is selected.
4) Next, select the ‘+’ symbol to add another input

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 10.27.055) Search for ‘Unicode Hex Input’ and select the option that appears
Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 10.29.35

6) Now, whenever you want to input unicode symbols you need to go up to the persistent menu bar, click the input menu button (usually a flag representing your input language) and select unicode hex input. Then go to wherever you want to insert the symbol and hold down the option key while typing the code for your desired symbol (eg. Option + U2603 = ☃ or Option + 03B1 = α).
Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 10.57.06


Non-unicode symbols

It should be noted that some basic symbols can be input without turning on the unicode keyboard. For instance, the degrees symbol, °, can be input using the standard keyboard input. To do so, use the shortcut ‘option + shift + 8’.

I’ve included a quick reference sheet I have for myself that includes some of the popular scientific (predominantly greek lettering) non-unicode and unicode symbols and their associated shortcuts. If you’d like the Microsoft Word version, so you can update it yourself with your own most used symbols, you can grab it from HERE.
Key_shortcutsThis reference sheet and walkthrough have been on my to-do list for a while, but I was spurred on by discussion between tweeps on Twitter this morning. Hope this helps someone out there!

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