A Blog Around The Clock

The series of interviews with some of the participants of the 2008 Science Blogging Conference was quite popular, so I decided to do the same thing again this year, posting interviews with some of the people who attended ScienceOnline’09 back in January.

Today, I asked Dr. SkySkull of the Skulls in the Stars blog, to answer a few questions.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your (scientific) background?

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First, the name: I seem to have evolved many different aliases over my time in the blogosphere! My usual moniker is simply “gg”, though I am occasionally referred to by my blog title, “Skulls in the stars”. A friend of mine somewhat sarcastically started referring to me as “Dr. SkySkull”, as well, and I’m rather fond of that title.

With the name out of the way, I can say that I’m an assistant professor of physics at a Southeastern University. More specifically, I am a theoretician with an emphasis in “classical optics”, which means that I am more interested in the wave properties of light than the quantum-mechanical particle aspects of light. I actually started my career in experimental particle physics as an undergraduate, and made the change in grad school. There’s an amusing story behind the change that I’ve promised to tell on my blog at some point…

What is your Real Life job?

As a faculty member, I’m required to do research, write grants, teach courses, supervise graduate students, and help keep the department running. I’m also currently working on an optics-related textbook, which I’ll explain more about when it’s closer to being done!

What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?

Well, hopefully “growing up” includes getting tenure, which I’m up for this year! Other than that… heck, I never know what will interest me next. I jump out of airplanes, play guitar, and ice skate as hobbies. There are certainly days when any and all of those appeal to me more than academia!

In all seriousness, though, I really love my job. Doing scientific research, and trying to educate people about it, is a blast, and I hope to keep at it for a long, long time.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

I really like the fact that the Web opens up a direct line of communication between scientists and the general public. If a member of the public had a science-related question in times past, the best they could do was seek out a popularized book on the subject and hope that the explanation would suffice. Now that same person can find an answer in a (free) science blog post, and can ask follow up questions directly to the author.

With that in mind, all of my science blog posts these days are written primarily with an eye towards a non-technical audience. I work very hard to try and explain concepts without mathematics and in a manner that would be understandable without a major science degree.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook?

As it stands, blogging does not directly figure into my work. It does provide many indirect benefits for my research, though. For one, blogging provides an additional motivation to keep current in the scientific literature. When I read journals now, I’m not only looking for research relevant to my own but also for good blog-fodder.

Blogging also pushes me to read, and understand well, topics outside of my immediate area of expertise. I’ve found that trying to write a post on a subject, especially for a non-technical audience, forces me to learn the material at a level much deeper than I otherwise would have bothered.

My ‘history of science’ blogging has also proven unexpectedly beneficial to both my research and teaching, but I’ll say more about that in a moment!

I haven’t used any of the social networking resources in my work at all. I use Facebook, but purely as a means to keep up with distant friends and family. Twitter is something I can never see myself using – I give myself heartburn enough trying to blog several times a week, I can’t even imagine posting several times daily!

When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?

I still can dictate exactly when and how I was drawn into the science blogosphere! I read Al Franken’s book “Lies” when it came out in the first Bush term, and that made me a fan and a regular listener of Air America Radio in its early years. From there, I got turned on to many different political blogs. Somewhere along the way, there was a reference to Pharyngula, which put science blogs on my radar. I started there, found myself drifting over to Science After Sunclipse, Good Math, Bad Math, and Uncertain Principles, and I was hooked from there.

It’s really hard to pick favorites, because I like so many and visit them regularly! Many of my favorites are curiously not even in my field: Neurotopia, Laelaps, Magma Cum Laude, Science After Sunclipse, Swans on Tea, Cocktail Party Physics and White Coat Underground are just a few.

I started reading White Coat Underground after meeting PalMD at the Conference. Neurotopia I was already familiar with, but started reading much more regularly after getting a chance to hang out with the uber-cool Scicurious. I met Tom Levenson at the Conference and now regularly check out his Inverse Square Blog.

You run the Giant’s Shoulders blog carnival – can you explain what is the motivation for doing this, what is the goal? Why are you drawn to history and why do you think others should as well?

The carnival began almost by accident! I’ve always had a significant respect for the history of science, which was instilled in me by my Ph.D. advisor, but I never really expected to make it one of my big “things.” I try to be very thorough in my science posts, however, and I found myself hunting down some very old, classic papers in an introductory post on how the speed of light is measured. In April 2008, I thought it would be fun to “challenge” other science bloggers to go and read a classic paper in their own field. I was expecting a few people to pick it up, but surprisingly (and in no small part due to A Blog Around the Clock), lots of people decided to pick up the challenge.

I realized that lots of bloggers have at least some interest in blogging about historical topics, and it seemed natural to have a central “focus” for their efforts – hence, the carnival. Overall, my goal is to promote an understanding of the history of science amongst both scientists and the general population – and that understanding can be beneficial to both groups.

There are a lot of interesting stories in the history of science, and those stories – and the people behind them – can help humanize science in the eyes of the public. Too often scientists are viewed as humorless curmudgeons working alone in some dark lab on scientific minutiae. Historical tales such as Tom Levenson’s new book Newton and the Counterfeiter can counter that perception – who could have imagined Isaac Newton matching wits with a crime-lord!

As an educator, I find that understanding the historical origins of a discovery helps immensely in explaining it to a class. In physics, at least, we tend to highlight the major breakthroughs but leave out a lot of the “connecting tissue”. This can give students a misleading view of how science is actually done and make it look much more mysterious than it needs to be. Also, fun little historical anecdotes can make the class a lot more fun!

As a researcher, my historical readings give me a better understanding of how major discoveries are made, and what sort of “mental blocks” kept other researchers from making them. What distinguishes an Einstein from a less successful researcher? There’s no easy answer to that, but one can partly see the oversights of Einstein’s contemporaries by reading the old journals.

It is also fascinating to see how scientific discoveries percolate their way into the popular culture. I also blog about classic weird fiction on my blog, and shocking discoveries such as quantum mechanics and relativity made their mark on the fiction of the time. H.P. Lovecraft, for instance, was a voracious science reader, and the weirdness of Einstein’s relativity permeates much of his writing.

You led a session about History of Science online. What did you learn from running the session?

One indirect thing I learned from it was how wonderfully democratic blogging is! As a professor, I was sharing the stage with a graduate student (Scicurious) and an undergraduate (Brian of Laelaps), and I thought that it was great to have all those perspectives presented simultaneously! Folks like Sci and Brian are the future of science education, and it was very energizing to see their enthusiasm and hear their views.

Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

It’s hard to pin down any single event that really left a mark. Mainly, it was a lot of little things that I internalized, like the different ways that people look at science communication. One thing I’m already taking back to my job, though, is that the blogs are a powerful tool for such communication, and I’m already trying to get more of my colleagues involved.

It was so nice to see you again and thank you for the interview. I hope to see you again next January.

Likewise! I’m looking forward to it!

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See the 2008 interview series and 2009 series for more.

Comments

  1. #1 Scicurious
    June 30, 2009

    Awww, Sci is blushing. GG is the best!

  2. #2 gg
    June 30, 2009

    No, Sci, you’re the best! :)

  3. #3 Laelaps
    July 1, 2009

    Thanks for the shout-out, GG. I’m not sure if me being the part of the future of science education is a good thing, but I appreciate the compliment all the same, heh. :)

    Thank you for all your work putting together that session, though. I was glad to share the forum with you and Sci!

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    July 1, 2009

    “Dr. StarSkull” would sound more like a supervillain name.