Carl Zimmer is annoyed that other people are getting work done, so he points us to the launch of World Science Festival TV. It seems mostly to be snippets from various WSF events, of which there have been scads. The kind of time-sink I can get behind. Here’s (former blogger) Monica Dunford explaining how we can look for new particles when we’re not sure what it is we’re looking for.
This is a fun thing to check out: the Physics Stack Exchange is a crowd-sourced approach to asking (and getting answers to) physics questions. (Hat tip to Chad.) Someone asks a question, others suggest answers, which then get voted up or down depending on how helpful they are perceived to be. It’s like an Urban Dictionary for Physics.
A quick peek around reveals that there are some really smart physicists answering questions there. See the FAQ for more details about how the system works. Note that it’s aimed at “active researchers, academics and students of physics.”
I know that I’ll be forwarding this site to people who email with physics questions. Which means that really I should contribute to answering some of them. You all should too!
As Sean has already mentioned, we have been nominated for a physics.org web award, for nothing less than Best Blog. I imagine first place comes with an immense cash prize, which we would then share with all of our loyal readers. As it happens, yours truly is one of the judges (for the “Best Q&A / Ask the Expert” site). But why would you trust me with such an important and profound responsibility? You can and should put in your own votes (unfortunately, you have to register with physics.org to be able to vote; there’s lots of good stuff on the site). Did Sean mention that you can also vote for Cosmic Variance while you’re at it? At the very least, it’s worth perusing the websites of the other 34 shortlisted nominees; they form a wonderful and entertaining collection of science-oriented blogs.
Usually I don’t pimp out blog competitions, as too often they end up honoring crackpots, climate denialists, etc. But here (via Phil) is a contest sponsored by Physics.org, where the other entries are all very good blogs:
Admittedly they left off some other very awesome blogs, but there’s always next year. So, yeah; I’m happy to advertise blog competitions in which I wouldn’t mind losing.
There are also competitions for best podcast, best online magazine, etc. Let your voice be heard.
Okay, I think it’s time to step down from hiatus and get back into this blogging thing. I missed you guys! And I notice that the science blogosphere has completely blown up and re-organized since I left. Which is a good thing.
I don’t like to navel-gaze too much about the act of blogging, but a gradual evolution in my own style was the primary motivation for my hiatus. In the good old days I stuck mostly to very short posts, pointing to this or that and making simple comments without feeling obligated to provide elaborate justifications for every little thing. But over time, I found myself increasingly seeing every post as a multi-layered 3,000 word essay. (Even if they didn’t end up that way in actuality, that’s how they often were in my head.) Not a sustainable model for someone for whom blogging is a hobby, not a vocation. I promised myself long ago that if blogging ever started to take up too much time (roughly, more than 3 hours/week), something would be broken and I’d have to fix it.
So here I am fixing it. I really do very much enjoy the idea of blogging, both exploring ideas for my own sake and the wider conversation with other bloggers and with commenters. But given unitarity constraints on my time and energy, I need to concentrate on punchier posts, and comments that are not fully supported against every possible counter-argument. If the experience of writing a book nudged me toward longer forms, the success of Twitter demonstrates the value of the quick hit & link. Of course I will mix things up, which is part of the fun — longer posts here and there, the occasional video. There may be LOLcats. But I’ll try to refrain from writing poetry.
And now for dessert: chocolate extravaganza from my favorite restaurant, Alinea in Chicago. Ordinarily there are no tablecloths at Alinea, but for this course they cover the table with a thin sheet of silicone and — well, you’ll see.
Some of you might find this presentation too precious and extravagant to be enjoyable. I understand, and I’m sure you’ll appreciate the Oreo Blender Blaster at Denny’s.
We know that Cosmic Variance readers are all strong, good looking, and better than average. Why don’t you say hello? Maybe tell us a little about yourself, and what you like/dislike about our blog? Are there events we should know about? Important blogs we haven’t advertised? Should we start a petition to bring Sean back out of retirement? Should we post more about puppies?
3 Quarks Daily has embarked on an annual hunt for the best blog posts in four areas: science, politics, philosophy, and arts & literature. Nominations have now opened for this year’s science prize; you have until May 31 to suggest your favorite science blog post from the last year; then there will be a round of public voting, and a final award bestowed by a celebrity judge. Last year the science prize was awarded by Steven Pinker; this year it will be Richard Dawkins. Someday I’m sure they’ll work their way up to having a physicist serve as judge.
Feel free, of course, to nominate your favorite posts from Cosmic Variance; I’m far too shallow to be reluctant to win awards. But even better would be to find a really great post at a smaller blog that not as many people know about, and use this contest as a vehicle for bringing more attention to really good writing. There’s too much good stuff out there, it’s impossible to follow all of it, so it’s always nice to hear about new bloggers doing great things.
I’ve been dipping my toes in the new social regime. Of course, there’s the blog. But I’ve recently been convinced to give Facebook a whirl, start up a YouTube channel, and have now even set up a Twitter account (after being personally convinced to do so by Ev). It is not that I’m afraid of technology, or don’t see the point of all this stuff. It’s simply that time is precious, and I’m hesitant to add any further potential timesucks to my life. I haven’t heard anyone say that the Facebook/YouTube/Twitter trifecta actually makes one more efficient and productive.
However, in a recent blog post I included a video of stars orbiting the supermassive black hole at our galactic center (not Hollywood effects; this is real data, of real stars orbiting our neighborhood supermassive black hole). The movie comes from Andrea Ghez‘s group at UCLA; I put it up on YouTube so I could trivially embed it in the post. Within 24 hours, the video had received over 50,000 views. I find this number staggering, and immensely encouraging. I love the idea that 50,000 people, from all walks of life and from across the globe, are brought together to watch a movie of stellar orbits around a black hole.
It’s increasingly apparent that these social media tools aren’t just mindless fads. They represent something radically new and empowering. Although I’m still somewhat unclear as to how to harness their power for good.
A handful of fun things that shouldn’t pass unremarked:
We’ve been studied. Bora points to a new paper by Inna Kouper in the Journal of Science Communication. The title is “Science blogs and public engagement with science: Practices, challenges, and opportunities,” which pretty much explains what it’s about. The author picks out a collection of eleven blogs — Pure Pedantry, Synthesis, MicrobiologyBytes, Bioethics, Wired Science, DrugMonkey, Scientific Activist, Pharyngula, Panda’s Thumb, and our own humble offering — and analyzes posts and comments to judge how effective these sites are at promoting science communication.
The list of blogs chosen is — okay, I guess. I have no idea how it was constructed, and the paper doesn’t seem to provide much guidance. Bora has a critique of the methodology that wonders about that, and about exactly how objective the study is. It’s very hard to assign numbers to things like “ratio of informative posts vs. rants,” or “degree to which the cause of collegial communication was harmed by use of intemperate language.” The paper reads like someone read a bunch of blogs and typed up their personal impressions.
For the most part I don’t disagree too strongly with the impressions, with the obvious caveat that it’s almost completely useless to study “science blogs” as a group. People don’t read randomly chosen collections of blogs; they read very intentionally chosen subsets that appeal to their own interests, and different reading lists will lead to wildly divergent impressions about what blogs are really like.
More significantly, though, I can’t really agree with the moral that the author draws from these experiences. Here is the telling quote from the paper:
The blogs employ a variety of writing and authoring models, and no signs of emerging or stabilizing genre conventions could be observed. Even though all blogs mentioned science or a particular scientific discipline in their descriptions, they differed in their voice representations, points of view, and content orientation.
It’s hard to disagree with that, but I think it’s a good thing, and the author clearly does not. Blogs differ in many ways, and happily avoid the encroachment of stabilizing genre conventions. That’s one of the biggest benefits of opening up communication channels to a tremendous variety of content providers, rather than restricting things to just a few mainstream outlets; writers can have their voices, and readers can choose who to read, and everyone is happy.
It’s clear that a lot of people want blogs to be just like some pre-existing communication medium, just with comments and occasional expertise. And there are blogs like that, if that’s what you’re into. And there are blogs that aren’t, likewise. I hope it stays that way.