Physics and Astronomy: Getting Duller Every Year

By Julianne Dalcanton | November 20, 2007 5:25 pm

Through the magic of Google Trends, we now must face the brutal truth. No one cares. Or at least, about half as many people care now the fraction of people who care is now half as many as four years ago:



Now, it turns out that this isn’t quite as big deal as one might think. It turns out that people just care less about everything, at least in terms of metrics that Google can track. Pretty much every generic search term I could think of showed similar declines, which leaves me wondering what people are doing now instead of googling for information. Heading straight to Wikipedia or blogs?


Seems so! More interesting to me were the seasonal variations in science-y searches:


It seems that no one cares about science during the Christmas season, what with all the shopping and downing of eggnog. However, when you notice the drop during summers, it’s clear that a fair fraction of the “science” googling is school related. Amusing also is the end-of-semester desperation that sets in among our budding young plagarists:


Finally, a big shout out to all my homies on the pacific rim (in so much as a middle-aged white lady geek with kids can have “homies”). Apparently, while astronomy is just not that interesting any more, at least it’s big locally:


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society
  • lylebot

    It could just be that the very broad query “astronomy” has been gradually supplanted by more specific astronomy-related queries. The proportional volume of all astronomy-related queries may actually have risen over that time.

    Also, the y-axis is pretty poorly labeled. “Search volume” could mean a lot of different things. It’s pretty hard to draw any firm conclusions (which is exactly how Google wants it).

  • Chaz

    Looks like dark matter is a more popular search than dark energy, and both are highly correlated with press releases. You can see some possible numerical effects in the dark energy trend – apparently there are long stretches when NO ONE is googling dark energy? Maybe, but I don’t accept it! :-)

  • George Musser

    Look on the bright side: by the same metric, people still care about “something”, “the world”, and, even more encouragingly, they care about “you”.

  • Julianne

    Look on the bright side: by the same metric, people still care about “something”, “the world”, and, even more encouragingly, they care about “you”.

    Yes, but interest in “me” remains flat.

  • Charles

    Also, take into account that the total number of google searches has increased dramatically. If you spend a moment learning what google trends measures, it’s the PROPORTION of searches that are on that topic. So that just means that if 2 out of 5 searches were physics (don’t we all wish!) then now only 1 in 5 is. I’d bet that the total number of searches has increased significantly.

    Also, the fact that trends have been down for most search terms can be explained simply by there being more information out there, more events, and therefore more different searches. So we should expect decreases across the board.

  • TomR

    I wonder if the vertical scale is relative to the total number of searches. As I fooled around with it, it looks like search volume on everyday things tends up. Walmart, movie times, post office all show some upward trend. Are people just using the internet more for daily stuff and less as a library, pushing the scale down?

    Picking out the temporal trends is kinda fun. Yeah, I’m a geek, and well, watching you guys count photons is part of why I read blogs like this. Try: tax form, scarf (but swimsuit peaks in Febuary, I guess with the SI issue), earthquake, pumpkin, depression. I’ve found plenty of annual rhythyms, and plenty of random ones (like earthquake)…any thoughts on things that would have more interestig patterns than that?

  • Sniderman

    maybe I don’t understand the “trends” feature entirely… but if you bookmark your favorite links (like Science Daily, or Cosmic Variance)… does that come into the count? Or only if you google it.

    I don’t google for science much… since the stuff I read is usually well-linked and direct.

  • Chris W.
  • Tony

    That’s a shame. I can’t say I’m much better. I’m a film maker by trade, and woefully ignorant of both sciences, but can’t get enough of this stuff. Unfortunately, if someone doesn’t devote the first third of their life learning the tools of the trade, they’re left in the dark. And since I have no interest in the existence of God and I don’t believe in reincarnation, I’m kinda screwed :).

  • Eivind

    It’s quite simple really.

    The y-axis is -RELATIVE- search volume, fraction of total searches that are for a certain phrase. If it wasn’t, all curves would be growing since total usage of Internet (and google) is climbing rapidly.

    So, when more people use the internet for more varied activities, it follows that pretty much all terms will decline. Especially those terms that where frequent among the early adopters.

    A few years back, academia and students was a lot larger part of the internet-population than it is today. I’d thus expect pretty much ALL terms that students use much more often than the general population to decline.

    This says nothing whatsoever about the interest of the general population. Other than, the general population is more interested in using the internet for more varied activities than they used to be.

  • PK

    Interesting: the curves for “autumn” and “fall” are quite different.

  • andy.s

    Damn you Sean. Now I’m not going to get anything else done today.

    It appears that interest in math subjects has a high periodicity, correlated to the school year, I guess.

    ‘algebra’ peaks in September and troughs in December.

    ‘calculus’ peaks just before final exams (dudes: if you wait until May to start Googling the subject, your finals probably aren’t going to go very well).

    both of them have a lull in the summer of course.

    ‘fourier series’ has an interesting square wave pattern – 2006 even has a little Gibbs phenomenon going on. Pretty cool, huh?

  • tyler

    I think Charles and Eivind have made the key points to explain this, along with the rise in Wikipedia. I can think of a few things to add:

    – digg, /. et. al. lead people within those communities to sites of interest via tag-based searches and “front page” stories. When a site has a story of interest and gets buried under massive traffic, google is irrelevant to that, unless it appears on the google news page. it’s generically called being slashdotted and that’s for a reason. As a secondary effect, these many page views become links on blogs, etc, which next time the google spiders roll through becomes a higher page ranking.

    – as the internet has reached full maturity, which I believe has occurred within the last few years with the growth to adulthood of the “facebook generation,” the proportion of browsers with highly developed bookmark/rss libraries increases. A typical behavior when someone gets interested in a subject is to do one massive google session based on a general term (“astronomy,” or, god help you, “mortgage”), then weed out the massive results pile down to a few usable sites. Future browsing in that subject is then done either by searching for more specific terms, or by following links from the primary cluster of subject-related sites.

    – within the above point I’d emphasis the importance of rss feeds. Once you have found a site or two you like, you grab the feeds, and you may never really need to search on that subject again, unless you need very specific info, in which case your search will be narrowly specified.

    I have actually withdrawn from the rss firehose in recent months, as part of an effort to decrease my incoming brainwidth usage, freeing up more cycles for creative and outgoing usage.

  • B

    am I the only one who finds the Wikipedia trend worrisome?

  • Sean

    andy.s, don’t damn me, damn Julianne.

  • Jason Dick


    I think it’s a bit more confusing than worrisome. Why are people searching for Wikipedia? Google nearly always shows the Wikipedia entry when a search is done. But Wikipedia itself is quite a useful tool. It’s correct and informative often enough to be useful for informal queries, and if you’re interested in making sure you’re correct, the references are usually good.

  • Pingback: Terry » Archive » Google This: Terry* Trends()

  • Alison

    Garrett Lisi has just hit the newspapers with his unified theory of E8. I think things may pick up.

  • B

    Hi Jason,

    It only shows up prominently if there is already an entry with the search tag, not necessarily if you’re looking for a keyword that might only appear in some other entry. Also, I too use a lot the ‘I’m feeling lucky’ button, so if I want to go straight to a certain site I will add a keyword just to make sure it’s the right one. Either way, the problem with Wikipedia I have is that it’s the least common denominator of many people’s opinions. It might work well for a while as long as stuff is actually based on textbooks etc, but I am afraid there might be a backlash at some point. The more people come to rely on Wikipedia and Google, the more likely it becomes that certain not-so-common opinions, derivations, references get lost. I am waiting for the generation of students who don’t know what to do when a keyword isn’t on Wikipedia. Yes, Wiki is useful as a check whether you’re correct (though I’ve had confusing moments where there were mistakes in Wikipedia entries), but I am afraid people might come to believe it’s omniscient instead of being commonscient. Best,


  • Jonathan Vos Post

    “Looks like dark matter is a more popular search than dark energy, and both are highly correlated with press releases.”

    The given statistics are meaningless, as they do not survey the great Dark Web.

  • Serge

    Wow, that should mean something: While average for “fourier series” declining slowly, “FFT” is slowly growing. Fourier series dominated by countries with weaker economy – South America, India, FFT – Europe and South-East Asia. Global Science/engineering vs software division?

  • Claire Lee

    Are the cities normalized by population size?

  • Tomasz Wegrzanowski

    Isn’t it simply because there are fewer and fewer English speakers as proportion of Internet users ? If you added physics + fisica + Physik + physique + fizyka + etc. then you’d get similar results.

  • Newtoon

    We can also think that Science is diluted in the mass of requests.

    More and more people have accessed to the internet but the first to be there were “intellectuals” (engineers, nerds and geeks, teachers etc.) who searched about content. Then came the business but that is not over…

    In a near past, it was difficult to understand how to understand how a computer worked and set up the internet and to pay for the service etc.

    Now, if you do not know how to use the minimum (even my father !) of it, one can laugh at you.

    So, more people go for it but fewer and fewer use it as it was operated in the past, otherwise the RSS revolution would have taken place (I consider it a revolution).

    Here, I saw girls of 14 years old NEVER OPEN A BROWSER.
    They instead directly open “Messenger” and chat. That’s all. May-be youtube a bit if someone gives a link. They of course know how to browse but hardly do it.

    They can look on words like “Britney spears” but requests about “dark matter” will obviously and statistically be diluted by the mass and their needs and use.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

See More

Collapse bottom bar