Saturday, January 06, 2007

Physics Blogs

The January issue of Physics World has several interesting articles about how the 'Brave New Web' is influencing research in physics. Besides an article about 'The open-access debate' (authors pay instead of readers), Sean Carrol from CV tells us why he is 'Blogging for Physics' and Martin Griffiths writes about 'Talking physics in the social Web'.

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.

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  1. ECHO "From the very construction, blogs just are not objective."

  2. If I may ask - and you may choose to not comment - it is very easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of information/activity out there even in narrow area of research - how do you allocate your time? What fraction of time are you working away at something of your own, what fraction interacting with people, what time on routine but necessary stuff, and so on? What events stoke your creativity and what events dampen it? Does blogging help in any way? and so on?

  3. Bee, I would add to the list of good things a physicist's blog does is to try and make physics results accessible to laymen. I have been trying to do this for a couple of years now, and I think I have had some extremely limited but still valuable success.

    I think if we stimulated those occasional non-physicist visitors of our blogs into understanding what we do - by attracting rather than repelling them - we would be doing a great service to physics.

    A couple of things that worked in my limited experience were to ask readers to proofread my papers (three of them got acknowledged in my last few proceedings articles) and to make a point of answering in detail the silliest of questions about physics raised in my blog posts. But one could for sure organize more direct ways to involve laymen in fundamental physics. See this idea for starters:



  4. Hi Tommaso,

    yes, this is of course right... I wrote it in the text but forgot it in the list, I'll add it, thanks!

    You know what I find a big problem is that most journals want you to severely cut the introduction of your papers in such a way that it's almost impossible to understand the work out of a research paper. In most cases, the introduction looks like: 'The most challenging problem.... [1-345].', and then you'll have to go look up other papers which do the same. You're lucky if there's already a review on the subject.

    E.g. regarding the black hole stuff, there are so many questions people have about it. I made an effort to write a paper which I found is on a fairly general level, but still qualifies as a research paper (see here), but it wasn't easy to get it published. On the other hand, if you look into one of the more general magazines (SciAm or so), there are often too little details, or references. There's a gap in the middle - maybe blogs can fill it.



  5. Dear Arun,

    Of course you may ask... But excuse if I won't answer here, it would get too long. I'll dedicate a post to it when I find the time, it might be interesting for more readers. Right now I'm stuck in routine stuff of the worst kind. Best,


  6. Bee writes:

    To summarize, blogging in physics is: ....
    * Useful to make reserach results accessible to the laymen*

    I would like to air a point just to see how much reception there is to it.

    It is my hope that in the future blogging will at least make a stab at what I call "reverse outreach".

    In the field of inventing "reverse outreach" is almost institutionalized. One does not have to have an engineering or physics degree in order to invent something.

    However, from the physicists that I know, including Lee Smolin, they all believe that a person must be formally trained in physics in order to make a contribution to it.

    In the 1850's the sophisticated amateur Foucault found a way to demonstrate that the earth rotated on its axis. Yet, it took the politician Louis Napoleon to force the French Royal Society to recognize Foucault's contribution and to help him publicize it.

    It is my opinion, both Darwin and Copernicus, whose formidable contributions everyone recognizes, were sophisticated amateurs like Foucault. The amateur Mendel made a significant contribution too but he, like Copernicus, was only recognized posthumously.

    Introductory courses and textbooks can give an innovator a broad understanding of a disciple. He or she does not have to have the details of the higher level courses in order to make an innovation to that discipline.

    I decided 30 years ago to investigate the idea that the gravitational force was better mediated by luminosity than by mass. There was very little in the literature on to help me develop a theory based on that assumption. I worked alone for years in virgin territory and happy that there was very little in the literature about the topic. I did not need to know the content of the graduate level courses in physics and astronomy.
    I doubt that Darwin found much in the literature on how to apply the idea of natural selection to solve the "origin and variety of the specie problem."

    I hope that somehow that this widespread, hard-core belief that one has to a Ph.D in physics in order to make a contribution to the field will be reevaluated.

    Einstein had the second lowest grades in in his last year of formal training.

  7. Dear Peter Fred,

    Thank you for your interesting comment.

    I hope that somehow that this widespread, hard-core belief that one has to a Ph.D in physics in order to make a contribution to the field will be reevaluated.

    I can't speak for 'the field' but I can tell you my opinion. I don't think a PhD is an a priory necessary requirement to make a contribution. But having a PhD, or better, the education that it confirms, increases your chances tremendously that you can make a contribution.

    See, the field has gotten so much specialized during the last century, that one really needs to learn quite a lot to contribute something that hasn't already been done. Or has been done and proven to be wrong.

    Unfortunately, I obtain quite a lot of emails from people who send me their own dreams of a theory of everything (getting worse since I have a blog). Most of them don't even know what a fermion is. It's hard to argue with someone that he should make sure not to be in contradiction with the standard model, if he doesn't even know what the standard model is.

    I think there is indeed a slight chance that someone without the standard education will have a significant idea. But if that person wants to convince anybody that this idea describes reality, he will have to come to terms with the status quo of theoretical physics today.

    There is just a lot of technical stuff that one has to learn before one can work as a physicist. That's not so much different from being a car mechanics. Sure, there is a chance my dentist can fix my car. But I'd still prefer someone with a proper education for the purpose.

    It's also similar in art. You have to learn the rules before you can break them, or the result is likely to be just cheap crap.



  8. I certainly appreciate the comments to "layman accessibility." Thanks

    Even a scientist may have a hard time "to know it all?" :)

    Bee:Unfortunately, I obtain quite a lot of emails from people who send me their own dreams of a theory of everything (getting worse since I have a blog).

    You can be certain no scientist has received a letter from me. Just, blog entries :)

    Should we not say, that one just continue to speak about the science in your general conceptual exchanges while referring to the mathematics and physics behind it?

    Is this not "good advice" in face of the "broken pots?" While, we still see the humaness of your particular other ideas.

  9. Bee

    Thank you for replying to my comment. Now I am trying to think up some sort of magical way to persuade you to comment on two aspects of my 30-year, full-time effort to develop a gravity theory based on the "radial spreading of infrared luminosity".

    These two aspects are (1) the results of my many experiments
    establishing that the radial spreading infrared luminosity is attractive not repulsive and (2) my derivation (see comment #22)
    of the formula for the force that would accelerate the earth towards the sun if its day side surface gravity were 0.06% less than its night side surface gravity. This formula is very close to equaling GMm/R^2 where M is the mass of the sun, m the mass of the earth and R is the distance between the sun and the earth. This is a very simple idea which to me has far reaching implications,especially for those who so devoutly believe in the existence of dark energy and dark matter. It is so simple and so obvious that I think that the deleterious inculcating effects or 7 or 8 years of formal training in physics would have precluded asking myself the simple question,"Does the tremendous pressure at the center of every orbiting heavenly body have any bearing on the centripetal acceleration of that body around a central source?"

    Einstein had the happiest thought is his life when he read that newspaper article about a guy jumping out a window and surviving the fall. I had my happiest thought when I asked myself the above question.

  10. Hi Peter,

    I've had a brief look at your writing. I see some equations with F's and so forth. Do you reproduce General Relativity with all it's predictions, yes or no? Best,


  11. Dear Plato,

    Even a scientist may have a hard time "to know it all?" :)

    The more I learn, the more I am aware of what I don't know. Sad but true. Best,


  12. Bee asks
    Do you reproduce General Relativity with all it's predictions, yes or no?

    No, But I do not want to. General Relativity like Newton's theory can not predict beyond the solar system if dark matter and dark energy does not exist. My luminosity-based gravity theory provides a more simple way to account for the flat rotation curves and the 1998 acceleration of the universe observation. And it can do it in a "close to experience" mechanistic way.
    I admit that Special Relativity has to be extended but why enlist the phenomena of gravity to do it?

    Besides, GR like Newton's theory, is a mass-based theory. We have never been able to specify, as Newton asked us to do, what inherent essential property mass has that would cause it to attract other mass (or warp space).

    When driving an automobile, everyone sees for himself that an increase in power will result in an increase in acceleration. If we quit trying to pervert the empirical Tully Fisher law with mass-to-light ratios and accept it as meaning what it says it means, then like the automobile it provides direct relationship between an increase in power (e.g. luminosity) and an increase in centripetal acceleration.

    But you still have not addressed or criticized the main selling point of my theory.

    By showing that the two expressions below are almost equal,

    (V^2/r)* rho * pi * r^3


    I provide insight as to why we have been fooled into believing that mass is causally related to the gravitational force.

    The Scholastics were fooled into believing for 1500 years that their geocentric theory gave many confirming predictions which to them proved that the earth was the center of the universe. But it has turned out that, in fact, these predictions were due to the artifact that the earth rotates on in axis every 24 hours.

    I claim we have been fooled by Newton's law and by solar system observations for 300 years that some essential, inherent property of mass has the capacity to reach out through the vacuum to attract neighboring mass. When in fact these predictions may be only due to near equality of the two above equations. One of these equations assumes the it is the measurable, detectable entity luminosity that reaches out through the vacuum to attract other mass. This assumption is backed by my many experiments and the Tully Fisher law.

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  14. Just announcing a
    new physics blog.
    My initial goal here is to reexamine and reformulate some of the basic concepts, like spacetime, which I think sometimes are over-mystified.

  15. Hi there

    Thought you may be interested in using this on your blog.

    During Anton Zeilinger's visit to the IOP we took the opportunity to talk to him about his life, his interests and motivations, and his views on the future of quantum theory and quantum information. This interview is accessible to anyone who is curious about physics, and what it means to be a physicist.

    Kind regards


  16. Hi to all,

    I think that it is important not to "over-think" your goals as a physics blogger. Science in general is still done in closed-up universities. They are doing that for a long long time in human history. For a while now you have the bloggers doing the right thing by open up the closed-up secrets from what they learned at their universities. In a way we are all visitors in this solar system and we pick-up what for us is interesting....that's what's all about I guess.
    Physics will work in many cases and to share new or old insights are always a good way to spend your valuable time.

  17. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  18. A layman asks your expert, enlightened opinion: spacetime- most interesting. Consider these possibilities: 1)In space with no matter, there can be no time. 2)Matter creates time, so instead of 'spacetime', it's really mattertime. 3)The state and speed of matter in relation to other matter affects (warps) time.


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