I’m now curious to find out why there are no ‘popular’ blogs in certain subjects. Do working condensed matter physicists who want to engage with the public write about astrophysics? Or are astrophysicists the only physicists who want to blog for the public? Or does the public only read astrophysics blogs?
The contrast between astrophysics and solid state physics is a clue to what’s going on I think. Solid-state physics is very important work. Like agricultural science solid-state physics may not have all the public glamor, but it puts bread on the table of our civilization. So why all the love for astrophysics? I think part of the issue is real straightforward. Astrophysics lends itself easily to a visual “hook,” such as the false-color image of the Crab Nebulae to the left. This isn’t necessarily the heart of astrophysics of course, but it’s a way to connect with the broader public in a literally eye-catching manner. Compare the image search results for “solid state physics” vs. “astrophysics. Not a good sign if the first page is overloaded with head-shots of old nerdy white, Middle Eastern, and brown guys. But that’s not the only issue here. I think there’s a “soul factor” at work. To understand what I’m getting at, let’s look at Vivienne’s breakdown by the umbrella categories:
Neuroscience, evolution, and astrophysics speak to normative concerns of our species. That is, they grapple with values. The brain is the seat of our self in a material sense, and neuroscience emerges out of a deep tradition of philosophy of mind which goes back 2,500 years. Evolution has had a fraught relationship with teleology, and some philosophers of biology have quipped that their field to a first approximation can be reduced to philosophy of evolution. Molecular biology is more fundamental in a concrete proximate sense, but evolutionary biology is more fundamental in the ultimate abstract sense. And finally, astrophysics when it bleeds into cosmology rather obviously treads on the ground which was once the domain of mythology, of cosmogony. In a very broad sense these disciplines push against our conceptions of ontology. Astrophysics in the most general sense, neuroscience in a very anthropocentric sense, and evolutionary biology spanning the two extremes.
I think the anti-alternative medicine category also emerges from the same dynamic, but mainly not to appeal to it, but to battle it. Modern scientific medicine does not jive with the deep intuitions of many people of how bodily processes work, They wish for a more “holistic” and “natural” model. I use the quotations because these sorts of terms are more figures of speech in this context than anything substantive. If there was a “holistic” and “natural” alternative engineering discipline then engineering weblogs would no doubt sprout up to battle intuitive pseudo-science.
Mathematics is a strange discipline because I think it too falls into the category of a soulful science. But as Keith Devlin observed in The Millennium Problems translating deep cutting edge mathematics to the general public can be very difficult, because there is less room to use metaphor and analogy than in the natural sciences. Technical hurdles are not barrier if analogy and visuals can substitute, but this does not seem so easy for many deep mathematical questions.
I believe therefore the issue here is to a large extent demand side. People get worked up over controversy, and emotionally invested in topics which cross the threshold of deep emotional commitment. Whether we are simply another primate, or sui generis and a Special Creation, fits that bill. More practical, and very important in an economic sense, endeavors may not fit the bill.
Note: I think other factors are at work as well. Climate science is popular because of its high profile in public policy right now and the potential existential implications. There are probably other hidden factors too. Why is neuroscience blogging more well developed than psychology blogging (or at least so a psych blogger has complained to me)? Neuroscience is a young field which is maturing right now, and perhaps it simply has the right demographic profile which allowed it to bloom very quickly in the next technological context. And I also think fMRI images are preferable to another stock photo of rats in a maze!
Image Credit: NASA