Well let me say right at the outset that rumours that I said I would never blog are exaggerated, but it is certainly true that I expressed serious reservations. Several people kept suggesting that I start a blog -most notably two of my new colleagues in this endeavour, Mark and Sean- and I kept declining. My reasons were simple, and chief among them were time, attitude, and content, together with a rather narrow view of bloggers. With regards time, it seemed to me that the really successful bloggers are clever, witty people who spend an awful lot of time keeping up with other sources of news and opinion by reading several other blogs, at least ten newspapers a day, all the popular magazines in their field, and generally are plugged into all of the issues of the day in their field as well. This leads me on to attitude. These clever, informed bloggers seem to be very sure of the rightness of their point of view on nearly all matters, and they actually want to share it with the other six billion or so people on the planet, if they’ll listen. Then we get to content. Taking yet more time, these well informed bloggers gleefully distill the information, and while smirking to themselves at their mastery of their craft, sprinkle a generous sampling of their wit and charm into it, to produce several column inches of well-reasoned opinion and observation, with killer arguments kept waiting in reserve for the scrum which might take place in the comments coming from the six billion souls who might dare to challenge their obviously unassailable position.
Now, I’m a physicist, so my membership card should say I’m trained to do all of the above naturally. In all seriousness, the key skill of a physicist is to asses a system, which is often very complex, daunting to the untrained eye, and somehow boil it down to its essentials, sometimes making incredible simplifications, but in the end often being able to say something extremely useful about the system. Now this requires an awful lot of hubris. How do you know you can really neglect all that other stuff, and focus on the few variables that are really important for analyzing a system? That’s what we do. Great progress has been made in science in several fields in this way, and long may it continue. Unfortunately, this very boldness, this hubris, this attitude, this confidence in simplicity in the face of superficial evidence of complexity, this certainly in the rightness of their position, so useful in the practice of their craft, is precisely what makes more than the average number of physicists very annoying. In fact, some of them rank among some of the most obnoxious people I’ve ever met. (It also a style of operation which, in my opinion, in its misapplication is partly responsible for why the field of physics has found it difficult to recruit people who are traditionally “not supposed to be able to do physics at a high level”, but that’s another discussion for another time). The problem is, you see, that our people go out there and apply those modus operandi to all fields of endeavour, scientific and social alike. So they end up being heard to pronounce loudly on all subjects with authoritative voices, using words like “trivial” a lot, and beginning all questions with words like “surely” or “obviously”. They treat complex social issues, for example, as though there’s a model of a ball rolling down a frictionless slope, or a gently swaying simple pendulum, lurking somewhere within, maybe perturbed a tiny bit. You know the type.
So when physicists took up the blogging thing, I got scared about the whole idea. Imagine giving such loudmouths as mentioned above one of the most powerful megaphones available and letting them do what comes naturally – unedited! It’s not only awful, it distorts the view of what we are like as physicists to people outside the field (perhaps most damagingly, to the young people who then learn that sort of behaviour and emulate it). Thus I found myself unwilling to join the rapidly growing ranks of bloggers. I did not want to contribute to the cry “I am physicist, hear me roar!”. This is not because I necessarily think I am “better” than “those others”, but precisely because I know how easy it is to do those obnoxious things! I’ve done it myself, and will do again in unguarded moments, but the difference is that I did not do it on a medium which spreads offense so effortlessly. I also only wanted to do it if I truly had something new to contribute, and until I found that, there would be no point reproducing the excellent effort of, say, Mark and Sean.
So what changed my mind? Well, start by looking at time for a start. No, I have not got a new job that affords me more time. I have not (as far as I know) been fired. If anything, I’m more busy than ever. I’ve a rapidly growing army of students to look after, several papers to write, equations to solve, classes to teach, books to edit, committees to sit on, screenplays to write, and so on. You know, the Professor thing. No, it’s simply that there are five of us on this particular blog. To a first approximation (there I go, using physics-speak in a non-physics realm) it means I only have to devote a fifth of the time that our solo uber-blogger must commit. Furthermore, the other four people are excellent physicist counter-examples to the cliche discussed above, and Mark, Sean and Risa are already established blog-merchants of quality. Finally, note the success of the QuantumDiaries blogs at showing off a range of excellent, healthy physicist activity; the world did not end as a result of their joining the blogworld. How about content? Well, but the two newspapers that get delivered everyday to my home already don’t get fully read, and I’m still hoarding most of the copies of the New Yorker I received weekly since about 1992 in the vain hope that I’ll find time to read all those wonderful articles I know are in them. I browse some of these and other sources while on the bus or subway for up 20 minutes at a time, or in those minutes that I settle into bed before falling asleep at night. Maybe a few other times per week. Not enough time to be an authority on anything except maybe (just maybe) the neighbourhood of my small corner of my field. How about the attitude thing? Will I be as playful as a kitten? As sweet as a lamb? As balanced in my judgments as Solomon of legend? Well, I can simply promise to shut up when I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. What I can also promise is observations about things, both within physics and without, and I’ll try to make sure that there’s a high degree of plain. simple fun, and not take the thing too seriously. Yes, there’ll be some opinion there too, but I’m not going to offer any pretense that these are anything more than just opinions.
Still, that’s not reason enough to have changed my position so radically. It is not as though my co-bloggers approached me to run for the office of President, and having dutifully said in the past that I would not do so, I uhm-ed and aah-ed, formed an Exploratory Committee to advise me and reluctantly agreed to do it for the sake of the fate of the field. When asked, I did uhm and aah for a long time. What I realized in the end is that maybe the best way to serve two of the missions that are most important to me (improved public understanding of science and more access to science education for all) is to help show that there is a wide spectrum of scientists out there, and that we are real people, just like everyone else. I hope that this will be tackled properly in the traditional media more, but in the meantime, it makes sense to get scientists involved and represented in this “new” medium right from the moment the starting pistol has been fired. By several physicists of all types blogging, we show “That we are not a special people, but people doing a special thing”, as I heard Cornell West say about America in a speech several years ago (I do not know if he was quoting anyone else). In this way people will begin to see science as just another human endeavour in which people of all walks of life can get involved. I dream of a day when, basic scientifically educated conversation will be heard at any dinner table alongside conversations about politics, entertainment, music, literature and all of those other wonderful things.
So I’ll try this for a while and see how it goes. I hope that you enjoy this at least as much as I do!