The Blog as a Sharp Tool for Research

By cjohnson | July 23, 2005 6:17 pm

Please let me share with you an idea I had a while ago. It emerged in a conversation with John Ellis when I was visiting at CERN giving some string theory training lectures. I was commenting about how great the QuantumDiaries experiment is, having a wide variety of physicists blogging from around the world for the World Year of Physics.
You will recall my mentioning about being reluctant to get involved with blogging, and I may have mentioned there that I did not want to reproduce already good effort out there, and so began to think of new ways to contribute using the medium. Well, as you read, I found some reasons to give it a try and here I am.

Well, a number of things did come up as interesting and fun to try, and the following is one of them. I’ve already said on this blog that our particular field (string theory and related topics) could do with more ways of having discussion, both general and specific. We have already accelerated the primary way in which we exchange research results (revolutionizing scientific publishing in the process) by establishing the Archive (see writing about this by Paul Ginsparg), and it undeniably helped drive the field’s rapid developments in the middle 90s while also democratising it by enabling serious papers from the traditional large and famous institutions to be seen on everybody’s computer screen right alongside the serious papers from smaller less well known institutions, often within minutes or hours of the completion of the work.

Imagine if we could do the same with discussions. How might a blog help? Well, of course, we could just have a blog (like this one) with lots of topics up from time to time and people come in and make comments and throw around ideas. This is great, and valuable, respectful and balanced discussion (e.g. here and here) has already been happening here at Cosmicvariance on general and technical aspects of string theory and long may it continue. But I think that it can be better. Way better. The model is as follows:

If you are an individual researcher or group at an institution somewhere, that wants to be a full participant in the process, you register with the System. The System then randomly picks a schedule which determines which group (from wherever in the world they are from) gets to be the hosts of the blog. As hosts, they choose the topics of discussion (perhaps some of the topics they are working on in that group) and put up posts on these matters. Everybody else reads and makes comments as usual on several threads, just as on any busy blog. Discussion happens. After the predetermined period ends, it is the turn of the next randomly chosen group to take the baton, choosing their topics of interest, and sparking off the topics for discussion. This just keeps cycling on and on. Full participants get to contribute and host, while others can simply lurk and listen, or listen and post comment.


1) Ideas are thrown around, both good and bad, general and technical. Nuggets of value are panned out of the mud and incorporated into research in the usual manner.
2) Senior people as well as junior get to contribute, and learn from each other.
3) Smaller groups or individuals at more isolated institutions get to have regular conversations with the entire field. Everybody benefits.
4) By changing the host every so often, everyone gets a chance to participate and to change the perspective and the agenda.
5) No one group, no matter how big or powerful, gets to dominate the scene.
6) There will be a permanent archive of these discussions which will be fully searchable. It can be mined for information at later times.
7) Flexibility: It is up to the group how they choose to participate. Just one person from the group can run the show, or it could be a group blog from that whole research group.


1) Someone has to design the system, but there are so many clever people to write some software to implement the System and there are excellent standard blogging resources for making it easier. Once set up, it will run itself with minimal effort. I bet there are several such clever people out there who could collaborate on setting it up.
2) Lots of random comment might come from people not working in the field that could be distracting. I’m not really convinced that this is a problem, but I’m sure that it will be mentioned as one. Easy solution is to have three levels of participation. The basic level is that everyone can see it and search on it as a resource. Next level is that you are a registered contributor that can comment. Next is that you are a group or individual that can be chosen by the system (with ample warning of course!) to be a host for a period.
3) Too much talk not enough equations? Not convinced this is a problem either. It is trivially easy to post up equations as images, raw TeX, or whatever, and also I think that people like Jacques Distler have been playing with other equation plugins for serious research use.
4) Can’t think of any more downers. What are we waiting for?!

I think this could work for several fields of endeavour where exchange of ideas is a key component. It is very well-suited to theoretical physics indeed. It will not and should not replace blogs like this (which have discussions of all types on all sorts of subjects, scientific or not), and will not replace all the other more “traditional” modes of discussion that already happen. It will enhance them.

I’d really like to hear people’s thoughts about this. For example:

1) Maybe it has been tried before by someone else? If so, point it out and we can learn from their experience.
2) Maybe it has been thought about before and not implemented for some reason I’ve missed?
3) Would you take part in something like that? Or not at all? What are your reasons?

Please share your thoughts (and ask others to come here and share theirs too), and let’s see if it’s worth taking further. Maybe even if we talk about it but don’t do it, the model might be useful to others.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Computing, Internet, Science
  • David

    Sounds like a great idea.

  • Joh3n

    Any popular open system on the net can, and eventually will, be trolled/spammed/abused. Any system has to have safeguards against this, and any safeguard will be bemoaned by someone as unfair.

  • ann nelson

    I’ve thought about this. The trouble is, people, including theoretical physicists, are very competetive. Currently, the main way theoritical physicists compete is trhough citations. Lust for citations will discourage people from posting any ideas to a blog forum they ahven’t already posted to the archives. So people would mainly just use such a forum to promote their ideas they have already posted to the archive.
    When a topic gets really lively, and papers are getting posted at a rapid rate, the archives themselves almost function as a sort of conversation.
    Bloggers also compete and get addicted to the various systems rating blogs according to links, comments, blogshares, googlerank etc.

    To get theorists to post interesting unpublished ideas,
    one would need some sort of rating system that people could get addicted to, like Amazon uses for their book reviews, so people could compete to have their comments rated as valuable or interesting.

  • Jacques Distler

    To be blunt, getting good people (who have lots of other calls on their time) to contribute is not as easy as you think.

    Look at the author list of the String Coffee Table. Most started off with good intentions, but ended up posting only a couple of entries before their enthusiasm flagged.

    Look around the ‘net. Weblogging software is easy to install, easy to use, and readily available. Count the number of serious research-oriented physics blogs…

    What about “The System” would make it more attractive for a physicist to participate in than starting his/her own weblog (or group blog or whatever)?

    I can imagine a future, in which everyone has a research blog. Then a system like the one you propose might give prominence to less well-known physicists, whose voices would otherwise be lost in the cacophany. (It would be a lot like if the arxivs randomly chose a “Paper of the Day” to be given prominent billing on the website.) But we’re not at that point, currently. Not even close.

    Writing the software is a nontrivial task. Not insuperably hard, but a commitment — an ongoing commitment, since any substantial piece of software needs to be actively maintained — that I don’t see volunteers lining up to make.

    In fact, making robust, easy-to-install and use, mathematically-oriented weblogging software would be much more useful than building “The System.” Much of the effort would overlap, but the end-product (minus the bells-and-whistles of “The System”) would be much more widely usable by many more people for many more purposes.

    There is, actually, some movement in that direction, as I’ve hinted on my blog.

    Finally, making weblogs useful as a research tool involves hooking into the arxivs. Again, there’s progress on that score that I hope to be able to announce soon. Maybe then we’ll start to see more physics research blogs.

  • Jacques Distler

    To meld a point that Ann made into my own comments … there is one way that (prospective) weblog authors are rewarded for their efforts. Through their posts, they may develop a reputation for presenting interesting, provocative and useful commentary. Having such a reputation may not be as tangible as their citation count, but it’s not to be sneezed at.

    “The System,” in which authorship privileges are automatically snatched away from you, long before you can develop such a reputation, is hardly an incentive to bring out your best efforts.

  • Moshe Rozali

    I have thought a bit about this, and to a certain extent this is why I take the time to occasionally make comments. I agree with the previous commenters that one cannot be too ambitious about it, to really make it a “sharp” tool as Clifford suggests. The model that may actually work is the “group meeting”, where people take the time to chat, in a pretty relaxed atmosphere, on this and that topic (not necessarily last week’s news), just trying to learn from one another. This is not very far from where this blog stands right now. The main obstacle in my mind is maintaining quality control over a longer term, this may take actual work.



  • Clifford


    Moshe’s view is the one that is much closer to mine. I have sympathy with what Anne and Jacques said, but if it were truly the case that people would not discuss any ideas that they have not already published, or that they would want credit for, then there would be already no conversations of worth taking place at conferences and workshops. So we might as well just email each other the .pdf, .ppt, or .key files of our talks now and not bother going to conferences and workshops ever again. No? Also, maybe one of the reasons that we have not got as far as we would have liked in this line of research is *because* we are jealously guarding our ideas, hoping that they will lead us to glory. Maybe we should try to grow beyond that selfishness that we all have, just a little bit. Once again, we’d be an example of good practice to other areas of endeavour.

    My main point is that we *do* have such conversations already. This proposed method just increases the reach of these conversations, and makes them searchable. Also, if someone wants to do that from time to time, there is in fact nothing wrong with just promoting an idea that you’ve already written about. I certainly don’t have time to read every paper that comes out now and assess whether it is pertinent to what I am wondering about in my own research. The proposed setup would help there: By widely discussing a certain line of approach or point of confusion, someone who has done something relevant to that, or knows of someone who has, can point it out.

    The point is that we do not know what our best ideas are before we’ve worked everything out. So some things that we are happy to discuss because we think they are not precious may turn out to be useful to others. Other ideas that we hold back and jealously guard might be not so useful at that moment. It all goes into the mud of the superblog, and can be panned for gold by others.

    We’ve all ended our research papers with speculative remarks. Sometimes those remarks are found to be extremely interesting or insightful by others, later on. Often, those remarks inspire work by others. There is a very loose standard for citing those partial ideas already. Some people do, some don’t, and I don’t think that people waste too much time trying to chase down citations for half-baked remarks. (Ok, sure I’ve done i a few times myself, but you grow, ok?). So again, I don’t think that the “giving credit” aspect is any different from where we are already. Anyway, people can credit ideas by referring to their location on the blog, if they want to.

    I use the term “sharp tool” as a relative term. The “sharpness” here refers to the ability to adjust the topic and instigators of the conversations from time to time. It is not meant to be a multifunctional research tool that we abandon all other research tools for. It does not need to have other plugins like the Archive, etc. It can, like the ipod, just do one or two things really well: Make wider and deeper the reach and scope of research conversations. You want the Archive, you just pop up another browser window. You want to do a computation, you just reach for a pad and pencil. Those are still our sharpest tools.

    Also, Joh3n’s remark that the system will get polluted might not be as much of a concern as one might think. This is what people thought about the Archive. It did not happen, due to some relatively mild but crucial gatekeeping efforts. Also, people decide on the value of a paper on their own, by incorporating the computations into their own research and seeing if it fits. They don’t wait for a refereeing system to decide for them. Same here.

    Lastly, Jacques’ remark that it cannot work because the resource has been there and nobody has tried it yet is just not good enough reason not to try it. There has to be a first time for any endeavour, whether it be a good or a bad idea.

    More thoughts please.



  • Clifford

    As for Jacques’ comments about busy *good* people not finding the time. Jacques, Ann, you’re pretty damn good. You take the time to blog with the regular people, and comment on their blogs, like here. :-) *Thanks*.

    Look, they probably said the same thing about the Archive. “The Wittens and others would never join our little club”, it was probably said. But when the important ideas started flowing in that new medium, they came running because they wanted to remain relevant. Same thing was said about cable tv, online encylopedias, online news sources…hell, they probably said it about *books* at one point.



  • Gavin Polhemus

    I ran the online school at for a couple of years and learned a great deal about the sort of online community you are talking about. The school stopped functioning due to a variety of illnesses, but it also had many successes.

    The school was started with an online string theory course using Polchinski’s textbooks. I originally had about 130 people sign up for the course, but I sent out a warmup problem on gauge fixing that brought the population down to about 20 who were actually qualified to take on the technical material. The population thinned further as we went through volume 1, but we probably had half a dozen people who really learned some string theory. We didn’t get very far into volume two.

    Other courses also started at the school, QFT using Peskin and QM using Saukari. I did not participate in either, but I believe the first QFT course went fairly well. However, the QM course and the second QFT course occurred as the school was falling apart.

    I think that technical issues played a large role in bringing the school down. As the school grew the software needed to improve, but those improvements were very difficult and required more time that than anyone was able to give, so things fell apart. Here are some of the things we learned, both from success and failure.

    Promoting serious discussion:

    I was amazed that in two years of running the school (free registration) we had not even one crackpot post. The thing that keeps the crackpots away is math. One equation and they run for the exits. The only way to keep math involved is to have a discussion that is within the mathematical ability of the audience. If the level is too high, then the discussion either dies due to lack of participation or becomes qualitative and is swamped with nuts.

    By actually solving problems from Polchinski, we avoided the nuts but had a very small population of qualified participants. If you try to start your system with research level discussion, I think think you are doomed. The number of people in the world who can have a mathematical discussion about a research level string theory is very small, and you won’t get enough of them involved (for the reasons Jacques cites). The String Coffee Table is struggling with this (leaning toward the discussion dying out side) as is the sci.physics.strings newsgroup (falling on qualitative degeneration side). I honestly believe that in time this will change. But the people who are already successful and have a lot of demands on their time are not going to be the early adopters and the engines for that change. They are going to get on board when they see something with a track record.

    Although the school failed, I still believe that it was one of the most promising paths to the sort of internet research community you are talking about. The vision was to start with a string theory course and grow the school in both directions. People who were successful with the string course would move on to a more advanced topic (AdS/CFT, for example), while those who struggled would either try again or start a lower level course to shore up their skills (for example with a QFT or GR course). All of these things were happening. The QFT course actually occurred, and we had instructors lined up for QM, QFT 2 and Seiberg-Witten theory when things fell apart. In time we might have had a sort of on-line theoretical physics graduate school. At the top would be a journal club that could spin off actual research.

    A string theory course, based on an actual textbook, is the anchor for this model. String theory is exciting enough to attract a community, but also accessible enough to get non-researchers involved. Eventually my class was all Ph.D.’s, but not string researchers. Some had left physics, others were experimentalists, some were Mathematicians. These are the people who will make the community work because they are the ones who have the most to gain. The school was their best hope for learning about string theory. The string theory course also prepares people for more advanced discussions, and motivates people in the lower level courses. I was amazed how many people were ready to embark on a technical QM course with the hope that five years down the line they would be able to study string theory. These retirees, high school teachers, and technology workers in the developing world can’t go to graduate school, but they are ready to spend their nights solving problems. It was quite moving.

    I think the new book by Zwiebach, “A First Course in String Theory,” could be a huge help in this area. Based on my brief look at this book, the book is primarily preparation for string theory, rather than string theory itself (perhaps it should have been called “A Last Course Before String Theory”). Chapter 2 of Polchinski decimated my class. I think that Zwiebach’s book would lead to a much stronger string theory class and therefore a better anchor for the community.

    Technical issues:

    We used a discussion board format, which worked quite well and was similar to todays blogs. There was a separate home page for each course with links to discussions for each chapter or unit. Each course also had a board for discussing technical issues and an “Off-Topic Cafe” for talking about other things. These two boards were tremendously helpful in keeping the content boards focused on content and in forming a strong community.

    Problem solving discussion threads can get very long. So it is important to have a way for people to respond to specific posts and to find new posts easily. Our discussion board had threaded lists of subjects linking to the actual posts, in contrast to the blog format that has the actual posts all on one long page.

    Having a searchable record of the discussion sounds a lot better than it is. Since people are honestly struggling with the material, 90% of everything that is written in wrong. Rereading any of it is a complete waste of time. However, we started a tradition that when a long discussion was complete and a conclusion was reached, on of the participants would post a summary of the issue and the result at the top of the thread. These were the only things worth keeping, but people could go into the discussion if they wanted to.

    Working with math was a challenge, but people were quite willing to get creative. Small amounts of math could be done using TeX like shorthand, while more math intensive Many posts were written in full LaTeX documents. I would typeset them, post them on my file server as PDF and link to them on the discussion boards. This was a pain, but it worked.

    As the community grows, the population of people running the technical side also needs to grow. We had one technical person who did a superhuman job keeping everything going, but eventually was overwhelmed. If more people could have shared that work then we would have survived a lot longer. The problem is that allowing more people into technical administration is in itself a big technical challenge. That is where we got crushed.

    I would love to help start something like this again. I really miss the wonderful and diverse community of people that studied string theory with me.

    Gavin Polhemus

  • Gavin Polhemus

    Sorry about the runaway link. I was expecting a preview so I could check for things like that. Next time I’ll check before I submit.


  • Joh3n

    Clifford: The arxiv has little pollution because a) the barrier to entry [read number of steps between having a thought and it actually appearing on the page being larger than…oh…let’s say 1] is a bit higher and b) it is not indexed by any blog tracking tools (to my knowledge).

    a) is important since the signal to noise drops as the number of steps to post falls. I think this was your roughly yourpoint, and it’s well taken, but let’s be clear, the arxiv is not a blog. Which leads me to…..

    b) Blogs exist by and large because of the need to be read/commented on/linked to. Thus the blog indexing sites. Thus the ability for anyone to quickly find, and pollute, the ‘system’.

    Yes, I’m the grumpy old man who points his finger and says ‘booooo’ at things.

  • Jacques Distler

    I think you missed the sign of my comments.

    I agree that more online research conversations are a worthwhile goal.
    I agree that weblogging software provides a suitable technology for facilitating such conversations.

    But there is the empirical fact that the software has been around for several years now, and physicists have not exactly jumped to adopt it as a research tool.

    Before proposing yet another variant on the theme as a “solution” that your colleagues will jump on, it behooves you to ask why they haven’t adopted the existing ones. What barrier (sociological or technological), that is currently holding people back, does your proposal lift? What problem does it solve?

    In order to address that question, it’s probably worthwhile trying to understand why, as a community, we’ve been reluctant to take up blogging as a research tool.

    Ann suggests some reasons:

    1) Lack of an incentive system which rewards time spent blogging.
    2) Worry that others will take our ideas and receive credit for them (where credit is conferred, exclusively, on those who write the paper).

    There are other reasons.

    3) Reluctance to have sometimes foolish or ill-thought-out statements permanently preserved on the web.

    4) Reluctance (particularly of young people) to say critical things in a public forum, that might negatively impact their job prospects.

    Gavin alludes to yet another reason

    5) In much existing software, including equations is a pain-in-the-ass, which people go to a certain length to avoid. (Heck, in this software, we can’t even friggin preview our comments, let alone include equations in them.)

    I’m sure that there are lots of other reasons one could list.

    But, of this list, only the last one is technological. It, alone, can be fixed by writing better software (WordPress can be improved, but it still has a way to go [a slightly out-of-date list, but still mostly valid].). The others are sociological problems which are not easily addressed by simply changing the software people are using.

    I think they can be addressed; I just don’t see how your proposal addresses them.

  • Clifford

    fixed your links, Gavin. -cvj

  • Clifford

    Hi Jacques,

    Thanks! Problem (5) can be fixed, or circumvented, as you say. Problems (1)-(4) might not as problematic as you say. First, you were silent on the matter which I pointed out: That we in fact have these types of conversations with our colleagues at conferences all the time. This is an important aspect of research. I just would not go to any conference or workshop if I was afraid to talk to anyone about what I was working on, or that if I made a suggestion about some other piece of physics then I would have to worry that if they wrote a paper I would not be credited. Or that if it were wrong I would be hailed as really silly. Gosh. Do you *really* worry about that quite so much? I really hope not. Perhaps not everybody is of the same sociological mind set as that which has been assumed. And perhaps people will consider it payoff enough to have had useful discussion. *Neither of us know the mind of most of the field*. Lets hope there are others out there who might send us their thoughts so that we can get a better picture of what people might be prepared to do.

    Bear in mind also that I have not presented a detailed manifesto for how the system might work. Just the large framework. Of course details need to be worked out.



  • Jacques Distler

    I just would not go to any conference or workshop if I was afraid to talk to anyone about what I was working on, or that if I made a suggestion about some other piece of physics then I would have to worry that if they wrote a paper I would not be credited. Or that if it were wrong I would be hailed as really silly. Gosh. Do you really worry about that quite so much? I really hope not.

    Notice, Clifford, that I’ve been running a research-oriented blog for 2 1/2 years now. That ought to tell you something.

    But you really haven’t said what you think are the barriers holding more of our colleagues back. It’s hard for me to see the relevance of the system you propose, or its superiority over the options currently available, without an articulation of what currently-existing problem it would solve.

    This is a useful conversation we’re having. But, before jumping to the “solution,” it would behove us to come to some consensus as to what the “problem” is.

    So, I guess I would ask all the lurkers out there, “Why aren’t you blogging?”

  • David

    Jacques’s points 3) & 4) above are fairly steep obstacles. You mentioned talking to someone at a conference/workshop as a way of sparking new ideas and whatnot. This kind of interaction is more often than not one-on-one (or at least limited to the people attending the seminar). If, as a grad student or young academic you make an error/say something stupid etc, the “fallout” will be limited to the person or small group you are talking to. On such a public forum as a blog your less-than-smart comment is not only widely available, it is preserved for eternity. The “fallout” becomes quite a bit more extensive and damaging.

    Jacques mentioned that young academics would be reluctant to say critical things to their more established peers. I think this is very true; young academics often don’t want to expose the fallacy of an argument from a senior colleague for fear of embarrassing them or dare-I-say humiliating them so publicly. This could lead to some bitterness on the part of the senior person, which of course can only be bad for the young academic. I’m not saying that every senior academic would be this way,… but you know what I mean. Indeed this may also be an inhibitor to the contributions from senior people. They have a lot of pride and would be very cautious in such public forums.


  • David

    “You” in the first line refers to Clifford.

  • Clifford

    I must say that I could (but won’t) get very depressed about our field if David and Jacques’ view of the nature of conversations in our field was really as limited as stated. You’re saying that there are *no* useful conversations to be had in our field which are not either (1) potentially embarrasing to the speaker, (2) potentially humiliating to some second or third party, or (3) risking potential loss of a good idea to someone else. Gosh. I had not realized that we were really so all insecure and monstrous! I’m going to try to continue not believing that for a while longer. Hoping that there are more opinions out there….anyone? Someone from a field other than string theory? other than physics? (Maybe nobody reads blogs on Sunday.) Maybe I’m wrong.

    And Jacques, in response to your most recent post, I’m not presenting a “solution” to anything. I’m presenting an avenue by which we may enhance the connectivity of people and ideas in the field. There no specific “problem” per se that is being overcome in a specific sense by this. I do not believe that my original post was presented in this way. “Solution” and “problem” were, I believe, your terms. You will not find them in the description I wrote.



  • Clifford

    Oh, I see the point of your “that ought to tell you something” comment, Jacques. You’re saying that because you run a research-oriented blog, you are quite willing to have discussions and make comments on research ideas in a public format such as a blog. You think that it *is* a useful thing to do. Excellent.

    If this is so, then you are claiming that you are different from everyone else in the field since you have decided that nobody else is willing to do that which you do, that my proposal is doomed because nobody else (but Jacques) is willing to have such public discussions. Perhaps there is a flaw in this reasoning? What is your evidence of this uniqueness? I find hope for our field in the possibility that there might be others who would do the same.

    So what ingredient does my proposal offer that would bring together more of these people (who I have admittedly conjectured to exist, but have no proof of) ? Well, the key components that I explained in points (4) and (5) of the original post : The agenda about what is discussed is not set by one person. It is set by people taking turns, and this can be a huge variety of people, organised according to research group, and picked at random. This is key, and is different from what has gone before. It seems to me that this is an aspect that will help encourage more usage. Simply put: You are more willing to take part in a conversation or series of conversations if you also have a role in setting the topic of the conversation from time to time. By getting different groups all over the map to host the *same* blog portal in turns, you get a variety of conversations, with the topics and themes being refreshed from time to time. And non-vocal people (the timid young folk trembling in their boots you that and David seem to think are everywhere) know where to go to listen. What we have now is a few people setting the agenda for conversation. Nothing wrong with that -I hasten to add- but I propose that this other way can widen interest and access. Another way to go would be (as you mentioned) to have everybody with their own research blog. They set their own agenda. This seems to me more akin to everbody in a room talking at the same time at the top of their voices because they each want to set the agenda for the conversation.



  • David

    See the first comment on this string. That’s me!! I think this is a great idea :) It’s unfortunate that I actually have to say explicitly: Like you I’m just trying to determine and understand what the obstacles are; so that we may have a better chance of overcoming them. Which seemed to me to be one of your aims in writing what you wrote, no?

    You see, this is one of the reasons a lot of people don’t comment. They’re afraid of misunderstandings of the tone and subtlety of their comment. It just goes to show how important body language and other forms of unworded communication actually are.

  • James Graber

    Gavin Polhemus is surely right about one thing: the need for threads. Just try to follow the strands in the comments on “Two cheers for string theory.”
    While I’m at it, let me say I really prefer the physics to be separated from the politics and the cute personal stuff.
    Jim Graber

  • Clifford

    Yes, David. But misunderstandings are ok if we all agree not to over-react, and to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Like in *any human interaction* where the body-language is either ambiguous or non existent, like travelling abroad. Misunderstanding are just fine, and are not an abstacle in and of themselves.

    Oh, and in case anyone is wondering: YES! I want to know what people think, as indicated in the post. *Thanks* all of you for your thoughts! My replying to them is not to be taken as a sign that I’m offended, but a sign that I’m trying to clarify aspects that may have puzzled you, or expand upon points that were not clear, or respond to things that were raised as problems which I believe are either surmountable or are not problems in the first place.

    We’re having a conversation. This is great!


  • Clifford

    Thanks James (Graber). I’ll take that as support for the idea of blogs specific to physics. (There are several, by the way. See our “links” page.) I do note however that we have several threads going on at this blog and it is usually not too hard to ignore the threads containing politics and “cute personal stuff” without too much effort. You are not obliged to read anything more than you want to. I hope you continue to find at least some posts to be of interest.



  • Gavin Polhemus


    I took your suggestion to James and had a look at the links page. I didn’t realize how many interesting physics blogs are out there. Now I see a real issue that your idea addresses, which is that lots of people are in too many separate rooms. There is no way to know where the action in on any particular day.

    It seems to me that we should try implementing what you suggested in a simple form just to see what happens. We could invite the bloggers on the links page to offer seminars on their blogs. There would be a seminar schedule, with one seminar each week. The seminar is supposed to be about their research and it is supposed to be targeted at an audience that does not regularly read their blog. In exchange for hosting a seminar, they can expect new people to visit that week and ideally participate in a real physics discussion.

    Is this in the spirit of what you would like to do? Doing it this way would be so easy that it seems like we should just try it. I’d certainly be more excited to visit a new blog if I knew that I would find a seminar like what I described above.


  • Jacques Distler

    If this is so, then you are claiming that you are different from everyone else in the field since you have decided that nobody else is willing to do that which you do…

    I didn’t decide anything of the kind. I’m merely observing that everyone in the field is perfectly free to “do that which [I] do” but, heretofore, only a negligibly small number have decided to do so.

    I do think that, over time, that will change. I just don’t buy your analysis of why it hasn’t happened yet, and hence am sceptical of your proposal the move things forward.

    You are more willing to take part in a conversation or series of conversations if you also have a role in setting the topic of the conversation from time to time. By getting different groups all over the map to host the same blog portal in turns, you get a variety of conversations, with the topics and themes being refreshed from time to time.

    Seems to me that, having your own blog, or being co-author of a group blog gives you a greater say in “setting the topic of conversation” than your system would.

    Another way to go would be (as you mentioned) to have everybody with their own research blog. They set their own agenda. This seems to me more akin to everbody in a room talking at the same time at the top of their voices because they each want to set the agenda for the conversation.

    Is that really the way you perceive the blogosphere? As a bunch of isolated individuals, all talking at once, none of them listening to each other? Seem to me that blogging is much more of a conversation than you make it out to be. Bloggers link to each other, comment on each others’ posts, send trackbacks, etc.

    All in all, very much like the conversation you are seeking, but without the elaborately-engineered infrastructure you think is required.

  • Jill

    I do think that Jacques D has a point. From what I have heard, physics blogs have a fairly bad reputation for a variety of reasons, including the level of [in]civility commonly encountered on them. But the main reason people have for disliking them is that there is a tendency for them to degenerate into the physics equivalent of “literary criticism”. JD does a good job of trying to avoid this: he sees a paper, goes into the technical details, and really tries to explain why he thinks it’s important. In this of course he is aided by the technology. On the other hand, there is another blog by a certain physics NetCelebrity where the author explains, verbally and at ever-increasing length, that this idea won’t work…..and that idea won’t work…..and this also won’t work…frankly, it’s boring and depressing in equal measure.

    So, to convince people to get involved, you will have to convince them that posting about their work will generate a real discussion, not just lit-crit.

  • Garrett

    There’s a program for the mac I’ve been playing with recently that looks quite good for mathematical collaboration:

    In sum, it’s instant messaging with LaTeX and a sketchboard included smoothly. One composes the TeX locally on a mini-previewer and drags the resulting equations into the chat window. Pretty nifty. I don’t know if there’s a similar cross-platform and/or free program out there, but this one looks like a good one to emulate for real-time mathematical communication.

    Oh, and hello to Cosmic Variants — looks like you have a good thing going here. To introduce myself, I’m a youngish lone wolf physics Ph.D. working on my own in Maui. Looking forward to more good discussions on this forum.


  • Stan

    iStorm looks pretty slick, though the limitation that the single user license only allows you to communicate with another installation with the same serial number seems pretty harsh. Also, no mention is made of how (or if) data is transported over the Internet. They mention Rendezvous (aka Bonjour now), but that’s only good on a local network.

  • andrew

    “To get theorists to post interesting unpublished ideas,
    one would need some sort of rating system that people could get addicted to, like Amazon uses for their book reviews, so people could compete to have their comments rated as valuable or interesting.” has sucessfully managed to do this on their blog. People can comment on comments hence if someone makes a good comment, and someone else comments on that comment, it raises the comments up. Hence one can surf 400 comments and find the 5 – 6 major issues being discussed easily and find the additions and critiques to those comments in a menu below them. Additionally members can instantly cast votes on the most relevant issues at hand further boosting good comments and critiques to the top of the pile. It’s funny though that a bunch of physicists would decide on a random structure to determine who’s in control. It reminds of Dick’s Solar Lottery.

    I’d also like to thank the cosmic variance people and many of the folks blogging on science while holding down positions as researchers and professors. As an untrained non-mathematical non-science grad it’s nice to be able to browse what’s going on in different fields and read about the people behind it. It’s funny also to see how pervasive the entire “creative class” is. I mean almost every string theorists or quantum researcher or whatever seems far more interesting than many would like to beleive.

  • Garrett

    Hi Stan:

    The istorm web page says it does work over the internet, but I haven’t had a chance to test that yet. I think they use Rendezvous for detecting local istorm hosts automatically, but have another input field for connecting to arbitrary hosts over the net. There’s no limit on how many clients with different single user licenses can talk to one another; the limit is if you have only one license you can only talk with one other client — using that same license twice. Drop me an email if you want to try testing it out over the net, I’m curious to see how it works.

    Hi andrew:

    Another great advantage of slashdot style comments, also adopted by many weblogs, is multi-threading — familiar from usenet news. Of course, this colon delineated multi-threading style I saw here and cribbed from Peter Woit works OK too.

  • Clifford

    Hi Jill, Thanks. A key aspect of moving away from just having people pontificating all the time is to change the people leading the discussion regularly. This is a key component of the idea. And rather than having to take the time out to figure out where on the web the interesting discussions are, as in JD’s model, you have them all at the same blog. This is the core of the idea. I don’t see that there is a lot of infrastructure needed for this, JD. This is just democratising, streamlining and focusing what is already there. Hence the term “sharp tool”. Right now, by being scattered all over the web, it is pretty blunt.


  • agm

    Clifford, I think you are underestimating the importance both of accreditation and of Jacques Distler’s fourth point. For an academic, the goal is tenure, and both of these get at the heart of getting tenure, i.e., playing the game right.

    If you talk with someone about your work because they are doing similar stuff and can cogently discuss the work, they may very well steal your work. I cannot discuss my work with those who would best serve as collaboratos because they are many, I am one, if they take the idea and run with it they can have it done in a fifth of the time and are reputed to have already done so to one of my advisor’s previous grad students. I am not the only researcher at my institution who has to worry about this, and I know people elsewhere it has happened to. This encourages a sense of paranoia, perhaps excessively, perhaps not.

    Possibly even more important than a publication record though is making the right connections and not pissing off the wrong people. You piss off the wrong person, tenure denied. You don’t kiss ass right, or enough, tenure denied. Letters not enthusiastic enough, tenure denied. There are just so many ways to screw up tenure approval, which again encourages a healthy sense of paranoia.

  • Clifford

    Hi Gavin (Polhemus), I think that the web-distributed seminar idea is interesting and has a place. But in a blog-format that might be perceived as more personally dangerous to the host in the sense that you’re really putting your head above the parapet in a formal way to be shot at. Having a blog-type discussion about a topic or area which might not even be what you’re working on directly takes off the heat.

    For another format for web-distributing seminars, you should be aware of the access grid, by the way. That’s at least one example…basically video conferencing a seminar with various nodes being able to participate and contribute seminars to the system (they all control the same projectors)…which I’ve seen work well at a black hole meeting in Ohio , for example. Steve Pinsky ran the infrastructure nicely and Samir Mathur and co-organisers invited a great group of people to participate in the physics. I wish we could have more of those regularly. No doubt there’ll be people rushing in to tell of other examples and software. This is good. But not the point I’m getting at centrally.



  • Robert

    Is it just me who adjusts the amount of detail of the description on current unpublished work to the trust I have in (how well I know) the person I am talking to? People who have talked to me in person also know that if I am not talking to the whole world like in usenet, the coffee table, atdotde or the comment section of some other blog, I can be more explicit in expressing my discontend with this paper/talk or the other. Isn’t that natural?

    On the other hand, the whole idea of the coffee table, as Jacques mentioned, was to have an online forum for technical, yet informal discussion, like the coffee table at you department or at the conference.

  • Clifford

    I agree wholeheartedly, Robert! Thanks. -cvj

  • Jacques Distler


    Thanks for the kind comments. There are lots of models of what a physics research blog could look like. Mine is very different from the String Coffee Table. Most importantly, there are so few extant examples, that I believe we have barely scratched the surface of what’s possible. We need a lot more examples and a lot more experimentation before we can begin to sort out what “works” from what doesn’t. That’s why, even if I liked the idea of a centralized system like the one Clifford is proposing, it seems to me to be terribly premature to hope to choose what format it should take.


    Finding the interesting conversations on the web is hardly a problem. How many hours was CosmicVariance in operation before you got your first inbound link (not counting those from Sean and Mark’s blogs)?

    The idea of centralizing the conversion in one location goes against the whole point of the web, which is all about decentralization. And, no matter how carefully you engineer the “rules” under which it functions, I fail to see how it could possibly be construed as “more democratic.”

    I’m sorry if I’m reacting rather sharply to this suggestion of yours. But there are two tendencies in peoples’ thinking about the Web and the way people use it to interact that really tick me off. The first is the tendency to seek technological solutions to sociological problems. Technology can make it easier for people to do what they otherwise would be inclined to do; it’s rarely effective in getting people to do what they otherwise would not be inclined to do. The second is when someone has what they think is a great idea and says, “It would be easy to … Someone should …”

  • Clifford


    (1) I simply don’t agree.
    (2) You’re over-reacting. You’re a smart guy, so I will assume that you are over-reacting in this way as a clever demonstration of your earlier point of just why people might be reluctant to put forward ideas on blogs. Brilliant!
    (3) You’ve completely misunderstood ad mischaracterised the core of the suggestion, despite how clearly it was explained in the beginning post. Perhaps another illustrative demo? Excellent.
    (4) I explicitly asked readers for thoughts about the idea to explore whether to take it further. How could you have not seen that in your characterization of this as a “It would be easy to…. Someone should…” post?
    (5) As with many things, it does not have to come down to choosing one model or the other, as you seem to be suggesting. We can have both. Just like there are other sources for research information besides the Archive. So I’m not asking you to give up your blog, (don’t worry! :-) ) I’m just asking if there might be something else we can do as a field as a whole.

    Just in case, let me point out (as can be gleaned from re-reading the post) that the suggestion is *precisely* a technological way of enhancing what we already do: talking to each other about ideas. Just like the Archive was a technological way of increasing the speed and connectivity of distributing papers.

    Also, about the use of ping-backs and the like for spotting what other discussions are going on elswhere on the web? Come on, you’re joking, right? Now that is a demonstrably inefficient technological fix for something that we can sort out in a better low-tech way: Why have lots of people talking independently on their own soap boxes on their own corner of the park, with a inefficient procedure of each soapboxer having to remember to have hyperlinks (runners, I suppose) between the soapboxes, instead of gathering together in one place and taking turns on the soapbox? Funny stuff, JD.

    You have many talents, Jacques, but I did not know that comedy was one of them. That’s good. That’s really good.



  • Jill

    OK, right, everyone is clear that this idea won’t work.

    So you *are* going ahead with it, I hope, cvj? :-)

    I mean, that’s science, right? Let’s put the hypothesis to the test. Anyway, it would be easy to get it started. Someone should………oops.

    Seriously, though, I do hope you will give it a try. Nobody has actually claimed that it would do any harm, have they?

  • Clifford

    Well, Jill, I’d have to be convinced that there’d be enough people interested in taking part. I fear that Jacques and Ann may be exactly right on at least that point and I may be hopelessly naive: Bluntly put -in my words not theirs- maybe the average person in our field is just too (pick your mix from:) competitive, afraid or paranoid to engage in useful open discussion on such a forum. It scares me that this might be true. And from the lack of people showing up to contradict Jacques and Ann and say that they’d take part, I have no evidence to the contrary. A warm fuzzy feeling about my colleagues in the field might not be enough to go on. Maybe it would work for another field that is more open? They’d be able to take advantage of the other positive features of the model (things like all being on the same page, literally, that JD and I disagree about), which I’m sure would be useful (like the Archive was). I don’t know. Maybe someone else will try it elsewhere, and our field drops the ball on this one.

    We shall see.

    Thanks for your encouragement, though.


  • Alejandro Rivero

    Clifford, if sometime you keep going with the idea, I offer to collaborate in the setup. Now, let me to remark that in the same way that any other blogging system, my site also allows registered users to thread comments, as well as initiate discussions on any arxived paper. Now, since I started in December, only three or four registered users had actually started topics, and only one or two have got followups. The major feedback I have got were inquiries about what institution was backing me. Site runs mainly from feedback from cited authors: an automated system (relying in spires and citebase) selects one or two authors in each article and requests them to volunteer such feedback.

  • Alejandro Rivero

    Hmm it is a bit embarrasing to offer oneself to help in website building and to have a malformed HTML at the same time :-( It was not obvious that with “my site” I was referring to “Physics Comments” [here].

    By the way when I started the site I asked the usual suspects to keep at least a six-month moratory before starting to upload comments on their own theories as usual, and I must report that they have happily honoured the word as if it were an oath.

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