Over at Gene Expression, Razib spins an interesting question off my call for blog posts: why are there so many biology bloggers?

As I said in comments over there, I think there are two main reasons why you find more bio-bloggers than physics bloggers. The first is that there are simply more biologists than physicists– we’re expecting an unprecedented 13 senior physics majors next year, which is forcing some frantic re-organization to handle the load, but a class that small would be a major crisis for the Biology department. The second reason is that biology is really the main front of the “War On Science,” with all sorts of nonsense being peddled by people opposed to stem cells and genetically modified organisms, and evolution, and all that. That sort of political strife leads to a larger number of people wanting to vent, and blogging is a natural outlet for that. If there was a well-funded and coordinated attack on quantum mechanics underway for political reasons, you’d probably see a lot more physics bloggers.

A related question came up back when I was doing the “Week in the Lab” series of posts. A commenter over at Cosmic Variance put it pretty well:


Does anyone agree that some parts of physics are over-represented in terms of bloggers – most bloggers do theory (esp. high-energy/string theory/cosmology). Some experimenters, thanks to quantum diaries – but mostly high-energy/nuclear experiment. Whatever happened to condensed matter guys – both theory and experiment? Nanoscience, correlated systems, low-T, scattering, scanning probes, optics? In most physics departments those represent at good 50% of students/faculty, but in terms of blogging it’s more like 10%.

(More after the cut…)


Here, I think the answer is even simpler, and has to do with the nature of the work that people in different fields do. In low-energy experimental physics, progress is pretty strongly correlated with the amount of time spent in the lab. It’s not a perfect correlation– after about twelve hours straight, I’m more likely to damage something than to make a dramatic breakthrough– but if you’re not physically in the lab, you’re most likely not getting things done.

That sort of work isn’t terribly conducive to blogging. On those rare occasions when I post new content during the day, it’s usually because I find myself in my office waiting for something. On days when I manage to block out time to be in the lab, I barely manage to keep on top of my work-related email, let alone write and post new articles for the blog. The longer pieces I write are mostly done during the evenings and on weekends, when I get the chance to play around with the computer for a while.

The physics sub-fields that are well represented in blogdom– string theory, cosmology, quantum information– are mostly things that you do in an office with a computer. There’s still a correlation between time spent working and research progress, but the work environment lends itself more readily to reading and writing blog posts. The same is true of experimental high energy and nuclear physics, where the amount of time spent analyzing data is much larger than the amount of time spent building apparatus. There are a lot of experimental high-energy physicists who are better at writing C or Fortran code than a lot of atomic and molecular theorists– it’s a very computing-intensive business. And if you’re spending time with a computer anyway, it’s easy to slip into blogging.

So, as an experimentalist who blogs, what am I, crazy? Maybe. I’m also at a small college, rather than a research university, which means I spend a fair amount of time teaching and dealing with students. I get a lot of reading done during my office hours, and while waiting for students to show up for appointments.

I’m also just the right sort of geek to find reading stuff on a computer monitor to be a good source of relaxation. I got into Usenet back when I was in college and grad school, and I migrated into the weblog world back in 2001 or so. To quote a guy from Usenet, “This is my hobby.” Some people knit, I rant at people on the World Wide Web…

Comments

  1. #1 Yan
    January 20, 2006

    I had the same question in mind. Your analysis is reasonable.

    I am basically an experimentalist, but spend on blogging quite a lot time, because “This is my hobby.” :)

    Maybe, some experimentalists would show up after reading this post.

  2. #2 Daniel
    January 20, 2006

    I’m tempted to wonder if a greater exposure of experimental scientists via blogging (or, in fact, whatever medium is handiest) wouldn’t go a long way to demystifying science for the laity. When you’re reading about people handling real equipment that overheats and that crowds small work areas and that has to be plugged in and the repair of which you ponder over a tuna salad sandwich, seems it is more approachable than a lot of MathML and coarse approximations of 7-dimensional manifolds.

    I’m tempted to wonder that, but have to realize that it’s largely the sciencephiles (has to be an actual word close to that, but I can’t find it at the moment) who are out finding science blogs to begin with. So, there’s the rub: do we proselytize and become Principia thumpers; or just leave folks to their natural proclivities and watch as they’re led down a path of unintelligent design?

    So, okay, I sound like a troll now. I’m done.

  3. #3 Spitshine
    January 20, 2006

    Hmm, I am a “biology blogger”and wonder — together with others — why there are so many physics bloggers but so few biology bloggers. Probably, we don’t count the medicine bloggers in (you might do that), whereas you count only experimentalists (not astronomers or computer scientists with a physics degree). My guess, it’s just a question of perception.

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    January 21, 2006

    Daniel: I’m tempted to wonder if a greater exposure of experimental scientists via blogging (or, in fact, whatever medium is handiest) wouldn’t go a long way to demystifying science for the laity. When you’re reading about people handling real equipment that overheats and that crowds small work areas and that has to be plugged in and the repair of which you ponder over a tuna salad sandwich, seems it is more approachable than a lot of MathML and coarse approximations of 7-dimensional manifolds.

    That’s one of the things that I try to do with this blog.

    I’m not sure how much it really helps de-mystify things, as opposed to just convincing people that physics is both mystifying and grubby. But I do think there’s some value in getting the “day-in-the-life” stuff out there so people can see that scientists are regular people, too.

    Spitshine: Hmm, I am a “biology blogger”and wonder — together with others — why there are so many physics bloggers but so few biology bloggers. Probably, we don’t count the medicine bloggers in (you might do that), whereas you count only experimentalists (not astronomers or computer scientists with a physics degree). My guess, it’s just a question of perception.

    There’s probably something to that. We all take a more fine-grained view of our own fields than others, so while I may be lumping medical people in with pure biologists, I might also be separating out space enthusiasts from what you think of as physics blogs.

  5. #5 Ponderer of Things
    January 21, 2006

    Chad, I think you are mostly correct about lab lifestyle vs. desk lifestyle, but it doesn’t explain absense of condensed matter theorists. I think part of the reason is that there are more easily discussable topics in high energy – cosmology, string theory, quantum gravity etc. People who do not have physics degrees but read some of the popular books on the subject may jump into discussions. Whereas condensed matter or AMO deals with a lot more technical and complicated issues. I don’t think a lot of laymen are discussing origins of pseudogap in manganites on some blog, but there will be plenty of people commenting on anthropic landscape or universe expansion – even though these issues are far more complicated. Maybe because it borders with philosophy and has connection to Einstein’s work, who was quite popular last year? I don’t know.

    Experimentalists spend a lot of time on computer too – reading papers and writing papers. Maybe they are just not as interested in sharing their physics with the rest of the world? Regardless, I really enjoy your blog – one of the few true experimental scientists in blogosphere…

  6. #6 Mike Procario
    January 23, 2006

    I have been blogging on science seriously for just a few months. I was somewhat inspired by Cosmic Variance even though they are theorists. I discovered Uncertain Principles just before the move to Science Blogs.

    I am just beginning to grapple with what might be interesting to blog about. It seems that theorists can talk about the big ideas, while we experimentalists spend a lot time dealing with the tiny details. I love getting an appartus well calibrated so it is giving its most precise results, or tracking down and eliminating a systematic error, but these are not the kind of things that might capture the attention of a mass audience.

    I did recently blog about a new dark energy result and why I thought the technique is quite important while the tentative conclusion was not.

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