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Welcome to the Blogosphere

By Sean Carroll

 Sean Carroll
Sean Carroll

I know what you’re thinking. You’ve heard of these things called “blogs,” some sort of web journals feverishly updated by pajama-wearing authors convinced that the world is in desperate need of access to their innermost thoughts. Who has time to pay attention to such frivolities? Fortunately, as serious physicists we need not worry that our lives will be affected by this latest example of overhyped cyber-enthusiasm. Just like our lives were unaffected by the advent of email and electronic preprints.

When I’m asked what blogs are all about, I start by saying they are like magazines–collections of serially presented articles (called “posts” in the blog context), published on the internet instead of in bound paper editions. Blogs are a technology for conveying information. Like magazines, blogs can be about anything. The purposes to which we choose to put this technology are nearly infinitely flexible.

Two major differences distinguish blogs from magazines: accessibility and interactivity. By “accessibility” I mean not the ease of access to the reader, although there is that–almost all blogs are absolutely free and available instantly to anyone with a web browser. Rather, the first miracle of blogs is their accessibility to authors. It’s not easy to get published in a magazine, but anyone can start their own blog in a matter of minutes, without knowing anything about web publishing, and without spending any money. Sites like Blogspot (www.blogger.com) provide not only free blogging software, but free web hosting as well. My first blog, Preposterous Universe (www.preposterousuniverse.blogspot.com), was literally set up in a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon, with almost all of that time devoted to tweaking the look and feel to satisfy my stylistic predilections.

Ease of access is both a blessing and a curse. Recent estimates put the total number of blogs at over thirty million, the bulk of which prove Sturgeon’s Revelation (“Ninety percent of everything is crap”) to be wildly optimistic. But at the top end, blogs are beginning to be important players in the public discourse: large political blogs get hundreds of thousands of visits per day, comparable to the circulation of a major metropolitan newspaper. And the blogosphere is as yet sufficiently young and exuberant that hierarchies have not become completely entrenched; a talented new voice with something interesting to say can rapidly become recognized.

Interactivity, meanwhile, helps define the character of blogs as a publishing medium. On most blogs, each post is accompanied by a comment section to which anyone can contribute. These comment threads vary wildly in spirit and usefulness from blog to blog; some are little more than long strings of noisy insults, while others are thoughtful and nuanced conversations between parties who might not normally have the opportunity to interact.

But another kind of interactivity really separates blogs from traditional forms of publishing: hyperlinks. Blogs are the realization of the long-discussed prospect of the unique power of interconnected web publishing. I can include in my blog post a set of links to any relevant external web pages, including other blogs. More interestingly, through the device of “trackbacks” I can leave a link on the other blogs to which I am referring, so that readers of those other blogs know that the conversation is being continued over at mine. The ease and rapidity with which these connections are established creates a uniquely interactive medium, in which interlocked discussions proceed simultaneously in different locations among different audiences. And it helps newcomers jump into the fray; the very first day I started a blog, it received over a hundred visitors, even though I hadn’t told anyone of its existence. Other bloggers had noticed that I linked to them, and threw traffic my way.

As scientists, should we care about this burgeoning new medium, or is it mostly a plaything of political junkies, gossip columnists, and self-professed technology geeks? Despite the pioneering role played by physicists in setting up the Web itself and popularizing electronic preprint distribution with www.arxiv.org, they have been relatively slow to take up blogging, especially in comparison with their colleagues in law and the social sciences.

One of the first physics blogs, dating back to 2002, was Jacques Distler’s Musings (http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/~distler/blog). Distler has been exploring the possibility of blogging as a research tool, allowing physicists to engage in informal technical discussions about recent papers and speculative ideas–thoughts that might be insufficiently developed to warrant a full paper of their own, but are worth sharing with an extended audience. In fact, www.arxiv.org has recently instituted trackback capability, allowing bloggers to leave hyperlinks at the abstracts associated with individual research articles; this enables a distributed conversation (unobtrusive to those who are not interested) about the implications of each paper. And the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at UC Santa Barbara has been experimenting with blogs attached to individual Institute programs (http://blog.kitp.ucsb.edu). We could be seeing the beginnings of a dramatic new mode of scientific communication.

To date, however, the majority of physics-oriented blogs have concentrated less on communication among different researchers and more on communication between researchers and the outside world. During the World Year of Physics in 2005, a project called Quantum Diaries (www.interactions.org/quantumdiaries) recruited a diverse collection of particle physicists to blog about whatever struck their fancy, from the progress of their experiments to life on the conference circuit. The explicit purpose of this project was to put a human face on a field that can appear intimidating and abstract to non-experts.

A similar spirit motivates Cosmic Variance (www.cosmicvariance.com), the group blog I started with collaborators JoAnne Hewett, Clifford Johnson, Mark Trodden, and Risa Wechsler last year. Our goal has been to explain and comment on science and its place in the wider world, aiming at the hypothetical interested person on the street. Along the way, we are happy to blog about anything that might move us at the moment, from arts and politics to gadgets and gardening. The resulting undisciplined sprawl is a feature, not a bug; it reflects the reality of our complicated interests as human beings as well as scientists. With about three thousand visits a day (and steadily growing), someone is evidently interested.

One of the most successful things we’ve been able to do is to provide insight on breaking science stories, frequently with direct input from the scientists involved themselves. A typical example concerned a study by Bradley Schaefer of LSU, using gamma-ray bursts to measure properties of the acceleration of the universe, including the surprising suggestion that the density of dark energy might be increasing with time. After the story appeared in a number of newspapers, we wrote a post about it that included links to more technical details. A lively discussion ensued, in which Schaefer himself participated, clarifying some questions raised by the newspaper articles. This pattern has repeated itself with other newsworthy findings, from quantum non-demolition experiments to cosmic microwave background observations; in each case scientists who were directly involved with the research chimed in as part of a multiway discussion.

This kind of forum, in which interested laypeople (not to mention students) can read informal descriptions of recent research by professional scientists and even ask questions of the researchers directly, would be impossible without blogs. Science blogging will not replace science journalism, but it lowers the barrier between general readers and professional researchers.

Our science posts are usually not ripped from the headlines. We have provided pedagogical articles on topics such as symmetry breaking, Lorentz invariance, string theory, modified gravity, and the promise of future particle accelerators. Beyond pedagogy, we have hosted lively discussions about the kind of issues that physicists talk about all the time, but don’t always make it into published papers: the relative merits of different approaches to quantum gravity, the status of the anthropic principle as science or otherwise, naturalness in particle physics, differences in data analysis techniques between different subfields of physics. A wide variety of topics at the intersection of science and society provide food for blogging: funding priorities, women and minorities in science, the relationship between science and religion, the portrayal of scientists on movies and television, and advice on how to get into graduate school. We have had contests to determine the greatest physics paper of all time, celebrated successful thesis defenses and the weddings of colleagues, and mourned friends who have passed away. The blog has provided a public space in which people with common interests, widely separated in space and coming from dramatically different backgrounds, can share thoughts and impressions on an equal basis.

Cosmic Variance is less than a year old, and we are still feeling our way toward the best way to realize the potential of our blog. Meanwhile, physics bloggers of widely disparate backgrounds and perspectives are venturing forth in their own directions. Just to pick out a small sample, Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles (scienceblogs.com/principles) mixes stories of experimental atomic physics with informed commentary on NCAA basketball. Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy (www.badastronomy.com/bablog) is kept busy debunking misuses of astronomy wherever they may appear, but still finds time to keep his readers updated on all the good astronomy that is going on at NASA and elsewhere. Biocurious (biocurious.com) is a blog by Andre Brown and Philip Johnson, graduate students in physics who are making a move into biology.

Some of the best science blogging is being done by interested non-scientists. Anna Gosline, Katie Law, and Anne Casselman are journalists living in London who are starting a new print-based science magazine, meanwhile providing links and commentary on science stories at their blog inkycircus (www.inkycircus.com). And APS News’s own Jennifer Ouellette at Cocktail Party Physics (www.twistedphysics.typepad.com) spins intertwined tales of science and pop culture, with the occasional drink recipe for good measure. The low barrier to starting a blog helps to diminish the role of gatekeepers in the scientific discourse; everyone with something to say is welcome and able to contribute, regardless of their formal credentials. In a seminar or classroom this could be disastrous; but on the internet it’s easy enough to ignore most of the noise, and the participation of new voices is an unambiguously good thing for physics. Blogging, I predict, will ultimately play a much greater role in getting the public excited about science than TV shows like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and books like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time ever did.

How in the world does anyone have time to do this? The answer depends on who is writing and what their purpose might be. For me, blogging is a pleasant sidelight, consuming an average of maybe half an hour per day. But a key factor in a blog’s popularity is how often its authors actually post something. Biologist PZ Myers at Pharyngula (www.scienceblogs.com/pharyngula), by a wide margin the most popular science blogger on the web, combines good humor and a fierce devotion to standing up for science with a seemingly inexhaustible energy that leads to several thoughtful posts every day. Most of us can’t hope to match that kind of output, which is why ambitious but over-committed bloggers often assemble into collectives. One of the benefits of a group blog is that individual contributors can disappear for periods of time without dissipating the blog’s momentum entirely. Even intermittently-updated blogs can gain wide recognition, if the author is able to provide a unique source of information, a compelling perspective on events, or simply a compelling and original style.

Blogs are not a fad destined to quickly fade away. On the contrary, we are witnessing the very early stages of the phenomenon, in which the number of blogs and bloggers is growing explosively. A type of communication that didn’t exist a few years ago will soon be as ubiquitous as the Internet itself. It’s a great opportunity for physicists to exchange ideas more readily with each other, and to let the rest of the world share the thrill of the process by which science truly progresses. Whether as bloggers, commenters, or simply as readers, it’s a big blogosphere out there, and all are welcome.

Sean Carroll is Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago/Enrico Fermi Institute, and co-founder of the group blog Cosmic Variance.



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