Saturday, February 29, 2020

14 Years BackRe(Action)

[Image: Scott McLeod/Flickr]
14 years ago, I was a postdoc in Santa Barbara, in a tiny corner office where the windows wouldn't open, in a building that slightly swayed each time one of the frequent mini-earthquakes shook up California. I had just published my first blogpost. It happened to be about the possibility that the Large Hadron Collider, which was not yet in operation, would produce tiny black holes and inadvertently kill all of us. The topic would soon rise to attention in the media and thereby mark my entry into the world of science communication. I was well prepared: Black holes at the LHC were the topic of my PhD thesis.

A few months later, I got married.

Later that same year, Lee Smolin's book "The Trouble With Physics" was published, coincidentally at almost the same time I moved to Canada and started my new position at Perimeter Institute. I had read an early version of the manuscript and published one of the first online reviews. Peter Woit's book "Not Even Wrong" appeared at almost the same time and kicked off what later became known as "The String Wars", though I've always found the rather militant term somewhat inappropriate.

Time marched on and I kept writing, through my move to Sweden, my first pregnancy and the following miscarriage, the second pregnancy, the twin's birth, parental leave, my suffering through 5 years of a 3000 km commute while trying to raise two kids, and, in late 2015, my move back to Germany. Then, in 2018, the publication of my first book.

The loyal readers of this blog will have noticed that in the past year I have shifted weight from Blogger to YouTube. The reason is that the way search engine algorithms and the blogosphere have evolved, it has become basically impossible to attract new audiences to a blog. Here on Blogger, I feel rather stuck on the topics I have originally written about, mostly quantum gravity and particle physics, while meanwhile my interests have drifted more towards astrophysics, quantum foundations, and the philosophy of physics. YouTube's algorithm is certainly not perfect, but it serves content to users that may be interested in the topic of a video, regardless of whether they've previously heard of me.

I have to admit that personally I still prefer writing over videos. Not only because it's less time-consuming, but also because I don't particularly like either my voice or my face. But then, the average number of people who watch my videos has quickly surpassed the number of those who typically read my blog, so I guess I am doing okay.

On this occasion I want to thank all of you for spending some time with me, for your feedback and comments and encouragement. I am especially grateful to those of you who have on occasion sent a donation my way. I am not entirely sure where this blog will be going in the future, but stay around and you will find out. I promise it won't be boring.

53 comments:

  1. I prefer reading your blog to watching your videos as well, because even though I am a slow reader (an unfortunate side effect of having to read a lot of technical information), I can read the same material far faster - and with far less technology, since I typically print it and read it later over breakfast in some sunny spot - than I can watch a video of the same material. But I have resigned myself to being in the minority on this one. (I confess most of my fiction reading is now done via a Kindle e-reader.)

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    1. Hi Chip,

      Yes, same here. For the most part, I don't really understand why people watch videos, unless there is some essential animation. I much prefer sitting in a sunny spot with a piece of paper. Though for a few years now I have had a laptop with a touch screen that's bright enough to read outside and I have taken on to reading more on the screen, unless it's something where I have to check equations (in which case I need to scribble).

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    2. Chip, I am also part of this (putative) minority.

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  2. Hi Sabine,

    I had no idea you posted on YouTube. I know you made videos, but I don't recall ever seeing a mention of YouTube in your blog. Would be interesting to see if others missed that.

    But I'm not entirely clueless! I have noticed the change in your interests, which I welcome. Your posts on quantum gravity and particle physics have not covered much new ground in some time, but then there is little new ground to cover in quantum gravity and particle physics.

    Thank you sharing the personal details.

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    1. David,

      Well, all the videos are on YouTube, the logo is in the tool bar of every video I have posted, and at the end of each video you're asked to subscribe to my YouTube channel. I didn't really see the need to point out I'm on YouTube. The link to my channel is here.

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  3. Your book is a great addition to the Smolin and Woit books. Congratulations and please keep going!

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  4. Thanks for the update.

    In particular, thanks for your comments about different search algorithms for YouTube versus Blogger. I wonder if other blogging platforms such as WordPress or Tumblr (where I have my own blog) behave the same way.

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    1. Michael,

      I don't know about Tumblr, but anything that's largely text-based and relies on SEO has the same problem now. I don't know what search engine you use, but let us take Google for example. Type in anything. The first hits you will find are likely question-answering big pages, Wikipedia or Quora or similar. Then you have a couple of video suggestions and advertisements. Then you have a list of "people also ask" with immediate answers. It's only after this that you get the actual search results. It didn't use to be this way. This means that the accidental traffic from search engines to blogs is basically nil at this point. People don't find it unless they go to page 2, which no one ever does (or they already know what they are looking for).

      Maybe even more important is that people don't actually get their news through search engines. If it's not a major news service they subscribe to, they get it from social media. And social media is the king of filter bubbles. Once you're in a bubble, it's basically impossible to get out. There just isn't anything like the YouTube "recommendation" or "watch next" for written content (unless you count individual website's recommendation of their own content). That's why, if I write about particle physics, I have all particle physicists reading it. If I write about climate models, no one gives a crap -- unless I find a different outlet with a different audience.

      It's really hugely inefficient. In a sense at this point it means if you haven't yet established yourself as a provider of written content on a specific topic, it's incredibly hard to get anywhere. People will just not discover you by accident, so it doesn't really matter how good you are.

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    2. OK, that helps even more,

      I always go through page after page of search results, and I always use DuckDuckGo...

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  5. Please accept my FR on FB so I can comment there. Thanks!

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    1. I can't, I have long reached the maximal number of fb friends. But you don't need to be my "friend" on fb to comment on public posts.

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  6. Keep the blog posts coming. IMHO a video is the least efficient way of communicating information ever devised by the mind of man.

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  7. For what it's worth, I greatly prefer reading to watching videos (and I'm sure I'm not alone in that), so I appreciate that you post written versions of your video scripts even as you shift toward YouTube. I hope you'll continue to do so!

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  8. I've been assuming the direction your blog has been taking is based on the topic of your next book. Is that true? I'm not sure I've seen you say what the topic of the book will be.

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    1. Yes, partly true. Information about then next book to come soon.

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  9. Dear Doctor; I follow your blog and it is one of my favourite sites. I watch a lot of Youtube, but for me, I particularly like your writing (and prefer reading to viewing in general), so I am hoping that, with your new career in videos blossoming, you will still find the time to write your blog.
    As a physics grad, I have your blog and Peter Woit right at the top of my list, but I find yours much more readable, and more varied in content.
    Whichever way your work as an educator progresses, I shall be a fan, and look forward to your contributions, however presented.

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  10. Congrats on your progress, Sabine. Interesting that I was living in Santa Barbara also when you were doing your postdoc, and I was in fact teaching at the Bren School right next to the Kavli Institute. Also, FYI, I'll be publishing a response to your "electrons don't think" piece on Nautilus shortly, hopefully also at Nautilus.

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  11. Thanks Dr H for sharing this. Your wedding photos are charming. Until now I have never dared to challenge you but on this I am confident. Your YouTube videos are great, your face is great and you speak with authority. So I enjoy the videos, science and song, follow you on Twitter, but I love the blogs. So I hope they will continue.
    Many happy years to you and your family from a GAS.(Geriatric Amateur Scientist)

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  12. Wonderful. The blog still lives.

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  13. Congratulations on your blog-birthday. I much enjoy reading your blog, and therefore I certainly hope it will continue and not be replaced by YouTube-videos only.

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  14. Ah, but String Wars sounds so romantic, speaking as an SF author I might steal it for the title of a story.

    I'm also considering how to make myself more searchable and considering other platforms like YouTube and Patreon, so the reminder was useful that blogs are no longer the way to reach a wide audience.

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    1. "Ah, but String Wars sounds so romantic, speaking as an SF author I might steal it for the title of a story."

      Surely someone already has for a soft-porn parody of the story of Luke, Han, C3PO, R2D2, Darth Vader, and Leia. :-)

      Of course, for some the original was porn enough. :-)

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  15. Long-time reader, since before I decided to study physics in uni, which is more than six years ago now, but never commented. You and your blog played a big role in my decision, and I guess the least I can do for this occation is to say "Thank you, Sabine".

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    1. Luca,

      Thanks for your note. This makes me so happy!

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  16. Congratulations on 14 year of the blog. I too am in the older crowd who has a preference from reading. It seems the younger crowd is more video oriented. It used to be in vino veritas, but now it appears to be in video veritas.

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  17. I find your music videos rather haunting. the lyrics and melodies stay with me for a long time. For my part, they are very, very, compelling. I like them better than any other music videos I've found. I suppose "St. Vincent" videos (the group) would be the closest competitor.

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  18. Congratulation on the 14th anniversary! I am literally addicted to your blog, and it’s invariably the very first site I go to in the morning. I rather liken it to an online version of the Solvay conference in which not only experts can participate, but the lay public as well; the latter hopefully learning something in the process. And unlike the Solvay conferences, spaced years apart, it’s a daily experience if one so chooses. As I see it, this is the place where the wheat is separated from the chaff with respect to many important ideas in physics, especially those on the cutting edge. False, or misleading, claims are called out for what they are, so that those of us lacking expertise can avoid going down rabbit holes that would lead us astray. As others have commented, I prefer the written word to the videos, but I watch them anyway.

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  19. Not just blogs, even scientific publications are now affected by the need to do SEO. I recently got an email by Elsevier after I published an article there about tips on how to promote your article. While I got that email after my article was published, it also contained tips on how to write your article in a SEO way.

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  20. Saying that the "search algorithms" now favor YouTube is a polite spin on the fact that Google owns YouTube, paid a lot for it and does everything it can to drive traffic to it.

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    1. Jim,

      Well, Blogger is also owned by Google, so I don't think this is about competition. And I didn't say that search algorithms favor YouTube, but that YouTube's search algorithm works better for content discovery of small providers than does Google's search algorithm. Which is understandable, in a sense, because it's not Google's purpose. Then again there isn't presently anything comparable to YouTube's algorithm for written content.

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  21. Right now I can't watch ANY video on YouTube without first seeing a campaign ad for Bloomberg; I am accurately targeted, and big money changes hands.

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  22. Boring you never are. Hope it lasts another 14 years.

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  23. Congrats on your anniversary! That's a fairly long road.

    I've enjoyed your blog for many years, but I like your videos, too. (Your face and voice are just fine.)

    Best wishes for your next 14 years!

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  24. Sabine,
    I stumbled across your work about 6 months ago via Real Clear Politics a more or less right wing political site that publishes in their science column your videos and blogs. (My wife and I are fairly far left politically but I go to right wing sites to see what they are doing) Anyway, I go to your blog every morning now and enjoy both the blog and Youtube videos and enjoy reading the comments as much as anything. I try to make a small contribution out of every Social Security Check. Keep on Trucking!

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  25. Congratulations. Running a blog for two years is no mean feat. 14 years, exceptional. You look and sound ok to me and have a sense of humour. And of course, talk straight. Cheers.

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  26. "I recently got an email by Elsevier after I published an article there about tips on how to promote your article. While I got that email after my article was published, it also contained tips on how to write your article in a SEO way."

    Elsevier does that even for authors whose articles have been rejected. If you doubt that Elsevier's interest in making money, even through dishonest means, is not stronger than their desire (if any) to promote science, look at what went on at Chaos, Solitons & Fractals.

    I admit that I have no idea what SEO meant; I had to look it up. Sad. Reminds me of a spam email saying "We have placed thousands of sites in the top 10". :-) But it is important to write for the right reasons and not hone your tone too much.

    While YouTube is great for old clips of The Tonight Show and music videos, I much prefer reading for scientific content, simply because it is much faster.

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  27. Blogs are great but if you doubt the value of videos, watch Dr Hs latest video on Dark Energy

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  28. Dear Sabine and all contributors,

    Congratulations to the blog's birthday! I really love to read and learn here, it's a wonderful resource to keep in touch with the discussion about central aspects of the foundations of physics with an unmatched amount of critical thinking. I really hope a many more years of the blog.

    Thank you so much.

    Best,
    Pascal

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  29. Regarding SEO, it is of course complete coincidence that a "https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/tubes">corresponding piece just appeared at SMBC.

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  30. I think you do remarkably well on the video-blogging front. It's not easy in a subject like physics where the subject matter is abstruse. Remember Hollywood (and TV) spend squillions making their videos look good!

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  31. Maybe I have missed something but I don't understand how February 29, 2020 (the date of this post) can be your 14th blog anniversary.

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  32. Dr. Hossenfelder,

    I need to add my two-cents to this; first and most important, I have read most of Smolin's books, I appreciate and like yours better. I am looking forward to the next one.

    Next, I do better at reading then watching videos. Like a few who posted on the Dark Energy post, they did not have time to watch the video or had to stop and come back. Of course, to be fair, I am a bit older than many so I am more comfortable with reading.

    Lastly, I have more but to keep things in a reasonable limit, you will do well at whatever changes you decide to make. Following Smolin, physics can you some philosophy to keep it in check, and you would be outstanding at this. Down side, not a lot of financial opportunities here.

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  33. Many congratulations and looking forward to more good postings from this blog.

    Like many who comment above, as for this blog, I too prefer reading. But it is not to say that your videos are not good-- they are fun to watch and the efforts you put in them are appreciated. As McLuhan points out "the medium is the message", for the topics covered by this blog, I feel well-written articles/books are more powerful than videos. Enjoyed your first book and looking forward to the next :)

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  34. Let me add my congratulations on your blog's 14th! :)

    As with several others who've commented here, I'm not a fan of videos (well, SNL Cold Opens aside ;-)). And having once tried to wade through the minefield/swamp that is the YouTube's comments (I still fell sullied), I do hope you'll never stop writing a blog to which one can add sensible comments, and engage in a decent conversation/discussion (for which your thankless task of moderation is essential).

    Keep up the good work! :D

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  35. Happy Blogday Sabine.
    Sorry, I should have brought a present. Instead, I received one, as I learned that you are about to publish your 2nd Book. So I better make room on my "easy to reach" bookshelf next to "Das häßliche Universum". Like everyone else here, I wouldn't want to miss your blog for the live of me, so I suppose a donation would be in order. Thank you so much for your work and I hope I'll be still around to celebrate the blog's 30th.
    Cheers!

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  36. Dr. Hossenfelder, as someone who gets more out of reading than listening I am grateful that you continue to blog, because I continue to learn things from it. Many happy returns on the anniversary/birthday!

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  37. There is an item about Tayla Harris in my news feed today. No, not a theoretical physicist. Nor a science journalist or blogger. Much younger than Sabine.

    So what's the relevance? YouTube comments on Sabine's videos!

    I'm sure some of the internet abuse Tayla had to put up with is much worse than even the worst of the YouTube comments in Sabine's "channel". But, if my experience in trying to get those which clearly offend the clearly posted community guidelines removed is typical*, I can only admire your cool temper and/or thick skin Sabine!

    *of all the comments I reported which were very obviously in violation of the stated standards, only one of the worst soft porn ones was actually removed.

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  38. I've enjoyed reading your posts for many moons. My preference is reading vs videos as it allows me to focus on the ideas without being distracted by personality or presentation. The almighty google search engine is a damnable master.

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  39. Sabine. Congrats on 14th anniversary. Do you know what happened to Markus (from phsyicsforums.com) through whom I first heard of you

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    1. Thanks. I have no idea what Markus is doing, sorry.

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