In the latter article, some interesting points are raised that I briefly want to comment on.
What blogging can do
Sometime in the late 90ies I read an article about the - then new - phenomenon of the world wide web. The author wrote that one shouldn't be surprised that emails, chats, and personal homepages have incredibly boosted the interest in personal computers, and catapulted it out of the nerdy corner. The reason is simply that most people aren't interested in computers. They are interested in other people1.
Blogs have contributed significantly to enhancing the interaction between users of the world wide web. Blogging is a very easy to use, and widely accessible tool to share thoughts, interests, and experiences. Similar to online forums, it is useful to connect people with common interests, to discuss questions, and exchange helpful references or advises. But in contrast to an online forum, the blog's content is filtered by the author, who is in power of the discussion, and who dictates the direction in which the story evolves. In this way, he or she collects people in his sphere of thoughts. In contrast to personal homepages, blogging allows for feedback and interactions with the visitors.
That people are interested in people is of course also true for physicists, most of which I know are human as well. Writing a blog is useful to establish contacts worldwide to people with similar interests. Developments of search engines, and features like tagging, feeds, and trackbacks make this work very efficiently. I'll give you an example. I've had a personal homepage since 1997. In these 10 years, I've had roughly 60,000 visitors. This blog isn't even one year old. Now look at the counter in the sidebar, and google Hossenfelder. Astonishing, isn't it?
Physicists writing about their every day life in a blog do communicate to a broad audience what this profession is about, and what it isn't. I feel that this has been severely neglected in the past, and I think that writing a blog gives the readers a good impression what it actually means to be a physicist2. This can be very helpful for those who want to decide on what major to take, whether to make a postdoc, are interested how the situation in fundamental research is on universities or private institutions, or what really happens in a laboratory. Blogs also do a good work in making research results accessible to the non-expert by providing plain-text summaries of reserach papers. A big advantage of online articles over the printed media is here that the specialisation of the text can be kept flexible by adding links to further references.
Funding decisions basically reflect the relevance that our work is believed to have for the society we live in. Therefore, I find it very important to tell about the fascination and the excitement of our work, but also to report on the problems that our profession faces.
Besides this, blogs do of course distribute news, they do so very fast and efficiently. That is, if you're bored and sitting in your office chewing on a pencil, they are a nice distraction.
To summarize, blogging in physics is:
- Useful to find and connect people with common interests, also on the expert level
- Useful to share references and advises
- Useful to distribute news
- Useful to make reserach results accessible to the laymen*
- Useful to communicate what physics is, and how it works
What blogging can't do
Blogs do distribute news, but they also act as a filter on these news. Why and how some stories get amplified and others don't is still a mystery for me, and also a reason for caution. One shouldn't misinterpret the attention that is paid to some topics and not to others. Very often, people don't comment on the actual story, but on somebodies comment on the story (not necessarily because it was a very bright one). The reason for this is again: people are interested in other people, in what others think, and what mistakes they make. Also, many who aren't experts on the topic just pass on things they've read elsewhere, and what seems like a lot of contributions are just echos of the same sentence again and again.
Obviously, blogs don't only profit, but also suffer from the online forum's diseases. Anonymity of comments tends to polarize discussions in a way that wouldn't happen in personal conversations. And since not everybody is very well in writing (or maybe just not very well in English), misunderstandings are unavoidable, esp. when it comes to humorously meant remarks.
"I can well imagine that blogs and wikis will become the framework for brainstorming and discussing ideas," says Gordon Watts of the University of Washington in Seattle. "It may even end up in some cases that ideas are fully formed on blogs and never make it into a preprint, let alone peer review." In fact, some have suggested that a framework based on blogs and wikis could be the basis of a new type of peer review." (from the mentioned Physics World article)
Even though I think that blogs can spark discussions about papers, lead to improvement, or actually develop ideas, I don't think they will become THE 'framework for brainstorming and discussing ideas'. For one, in most cases these discussions will end with a small circle of people going on in a comment section. This is about the same as having a collaboration with them per email, the only difference being that one has a neat timeline of the comments (instead of a messy inbox), and that the discussion is public. From a certain point of specialization on however (and from a certain amount of comments on), there will hardly be anybody reading through all of the discussion.
Pure 'virtual' collaborations can work, but are often frustrating. For me it is without doubts that collaborations work more efficiently when one spends at least some weeks in face to face discussions, with a blackboard nearby, and with a trip to the next Café every now an then. Though large parts of developing an idea can be worked out by email - or possible via a blog - I doubt this will ever become the first choice for researchers. After all, people are interested in people... 3
But there are also functions blogs can't and shouldn't fulfil. When it comes to reviewing papers, or developing ideas one has to keep in mind that a blog is usually maintained by one or a few persons, who are in charge of the posts as well as the comments. They are even more so when they run their own software. It is tremendously easy to modify posts after they are written, or to publish them with an arbitrarily chosen date. In a scientific debate this fluid change of information can be very confusing. E.g. consider somebody points towards a faulty statement, the post is corrected afterwards but without adding a note on this correction. Also, regarding the comments, there is the obvious problem of censoring contributions that the blogger just doesn't like. From the very construction, blogs just are not objective.
Regarding the peer review, I do think that online reviews can considerably improve the situation. Right now we have a tremendous amount of publications available, and it would be good to have a qualified rating on these. E.g. I have suggested before that the arxiv allows reviews and comments on the papers. This would also be useful to clear up the arxiv from papers like 'A comment on the paper ....' followed by 'A reply to a comment on ... ' and 'A comment to a reply to a comment on...', which seems to happen more often lately. For the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph, doing this via trackbacks to discussions on blogs is not a good idea.
To summarize, blogs
- have a limited applicability for 'brainstorming and discussing ideas'
- are generally not objective enough to be a reliable source for scientific judgement
- suffer from the common online phenomena like 'what many people talk about, more people talk about' and anonymous comments
What this blog does
I am writing this blog because I've always liked to write about the topics that I am fascinated of on a general level, to communicate the excitement to a broader audience. It is very rewarding to get feedback on the topics, and encouraging that physics receives so much interest!
In the first line, I want to give you an impression what it is like to work in theoretical physics. Besides this every day life, there are topics that physicists care about but that aren't subject of their research papers, like the philosophical or religious implications, as also Sean has mentioned. And, as you might have noticed, I often use my blog to express my confusion about things I did not understand. (And, believe me, there are many things in this world I don't understand.) So, every time you let me know what you think, you help me understand a piece of this world.
I am not a news ticker, and I have no intention (and no time) to become one. Things I write about often aren't new but just newly summarized, and I hope this is useful - or at least entertaining - for the readers. After all, this blog is not so much about action, but about backreaction.
Footnote 1: With the possible exceptions of the mentioned nerds, and those who are interested in why people are interested in other people.
Footnote 2: I've encountered quite a lot of sometimes funny, sometimes tiresome prejudices that stem from this lack of communication, as most people have a very distinct idea what physicists do. E.g. as long as I was working for universities, I've more than once heard the remark (comes with a wink) that I'm the eternal student who sleeps through the whole day and doesn't have to work because the government was dumb enough to give me a scholarship. The truth being that I didn't sleep through the day, but worked through the night, and there was a reason why I got the scholarship. Funny, eh?
Footnote 3: One should note that 'virtual' collaborations can considerably improve the situation for those who can't afford travels.
TAGS: PHYSICS, SCIENCE, BLOGS