Theory of Blogging Faculty

Over at evolgen, RPM is wondering about the disciplinary distribution of bloggers:

I have an intuition, backed up by absolutely no evidence, that my particular area of interest (evolutionary genetics) has more faculty blogging about stuff related to their research than other fields. This is most likely the result of my interest in those blogs, and, hence, my increased awareness of them compared to blogs of faculty in other research areas.

[... list of half-a-dozen blogs...]

That’s not a lot of blogs, but it’s also not a huge field. How does that compare with faculty who blog in your research area?

Well, it’s way more than blog in my research area, a set consisting of, um, me. In physics generally, I think it’s still more than any single research area, but it probably depends on the definition of research area.

Whether RPM’s intuition regarding biology bloggers is correct or not, it’s clear that blogs are not evenly distributed among research areas. I have a theory as to what’s going on that fits the available data in physics, at least.

If you look at physics faculty who blog– the Cosmic Variance crew, Clifford Johnson, Peter Steinberg, Gordon Watts, Tommaso Dorigo, Scott Aaronson, Michael Nielsen, Steve Hsu– the majority of them fall into two groups: theorists or experimental particle physicists. About the only other low-energy experimental physics faculty blogger I know of is Doug Natelson.

The overall number of physics bloggers as a fraction of physics faculty is miniscule, so it’s a little risky to attempt to draw any conclusions, but I think there’s a reason why theoretical physicists and particle experimentalists dominate the physics blogosphere: they’re people whose research is mostly done in offices, at or near computers. Theory is an office-based business in general, and experimental particle physics involves more coding than soldering– most of the business of experimental particle physics is using computers to sift through vast quantities of data to find small numbers of events corresponding to a particular process. In those disciplines, it’s easy to find time to read and write blog posts– you can do it while research processes run in the background.

Low-energy experimental physics, on the other hand, involves physically manipulating apparatus in a lab. It’s much harder to sneak in a blogging break when you’re in another room from the computer, cranking on something with a wrench.

Does this explain RPM’s intuition? I don’t know enough about biology to say, but the name “evolutionary genetics” certainly suggests a field involving more computer data analysis than stomping around in the mud looking for specimens. But I could be way wrong, and people who know something about biology are encouraged to correct me.

Comments

  1. #1 lylebot
    February 25, 2008

    There’s something to that, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. Most computer science bloggers seem to be theorists too, even though most of us non-theorists are also working on computers in our offices all day. Maybe it also has something to do with waiting around for inspiration to strike, which I’ve been told is something that theorists spend a lot of time doing.

  2. #2 PhysioProf
    February 25, 2008

    In relation to the biological/biomedical sciences, your intuition is likely wrong. Most biological/biomedical sciences faculty spend the vast majority of their time sitting at a computer. It is their students, post-docs, and technicians who are at the bench doing experiments.

  3. #3 Tom
    February 25, 2008

    If you restrict it to faculty, perhaps, but you’re not the only person with a degree doing research related to atomic physics who blogs (the gub’mint has researchers, too). I just haven’t done all that many atomic physics posts yet.

  4. #4 Brad Holden
    February 25, 2008

    I think you use too broad a brush.

    Scott Aaronson is many things, but he is not a theoretical or experimental particle physicist. His blog is about quantum computing, heck, it is called “Shtetl-Optimized”. One could argue if it belongs in physics, but I am pretty sure it ain’t particle.

    Half of the Cosmic Variance crew aren’t particle either. Sean Carroll is a relativist – he works for LIGO, and Julianne Dalcanton is a died in the wool observational astronomer.

    Steinn seems to be the only scienceblogs astro person, but there are a number of other astro blogs. Astro folks spend a lot of time with computers, so using them for communicating in ways besides LaTeX and email is going to occur to some people, perhaps more so then folks who spend all day at the bench. It would not surprise me if astro folk are over-represented.

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    February 25, 2008

    Tom: If you restrict it to faculty, perhaps, but you’re not the only person with a degree doing research related to atomic physics who blogs (the gub’mint has researchers, too). I just haven’t done all that many atomic physics posts yet.

    RPM was talking specifically about faculty, and had some explanation of his definition in there. That’s also why I left out Backreaction, Biocurious, and a few other blogs by post-docs.

    Brad: Scott Aaronson is many things, but he is not a theoretical or experimental particle physicist.

    Sorry, there’s a grouping problem here. That should be ” theorists or (experimental particle physicists).” That is, the physics bloggers who are experimentalists are particle types, while the the theorists are from a variety of fields. Scott’s not a particle physicist, but he is a theorist, likewise Sean.

    Astro blogs are a different category, and I wasn’t including them.

  6. #6 Tom
    February 25, 2008

    Ah, I phrased that poorly. I’m wondering why limit the focus to academia, if RPM (and by extension, you) is/are interested in scientists-blogging-about-research-in-my-field. Surely a staff scientist at a government lab might do somewhat-related research. RPM doesn’t explain why the distinction has been made.

    The comment by Larry Elsen about why he blogs doesn’t restrict itself to just academia.

  7. #7 Brad Holden
    February 25, 2008

    I guess my point about astro blogs was too subtle.

    Kinda like theorists, astro folk spend a lot of time in front of computers. Blogging might come more naturally to such folk as compared with bench physicists who need to, I don’t know, actually work with real equipment.

  8. #8 CCPhysicist
    February 25, 2008

    A theorist here also, but you probably don’t count me as “faculty” because I merely produce 30 or 40 engineering majors a year and only one physics major in a good year.

    I think it is impossible to get good statistics when you consider how many people might blog about something completely unrelated to what they do for a living.

    Besides, you can’t just go by raw numbers. Look how many biologists are out there compared to physicists. For that matter, look at the overall PhD stats and the vast number of degrees in the other science (not to mention nonscience) categories compared to a mere 1300 degrees in physics each year. It is staggering.

  9. #9 Chad Orzel
    February 25, 2008

    Tom: Ah, I phrased that poorly. I’m wondering why limit the focus to academia, if RPM (and by extension, you) is/are interested in scientists-blogging-about-research-in-my-field. Surely a staff scientist at a government lab might do somewhat-related research. RPM doesn’t explain why the distinction has been made.

    I’m not sure why he made that distinction either, but I was just copying him.

    I don’t think expanding the definition makes all that much difference, though. You can pick up a few more experimentalists, but also a bunch more theorists– Backreaction, Lubos Motl, etc.

    Brad: Kinda like theorists, astro folk spend a lot of time in front of computers. Blogging might come more naturally to such folk as compared with bench physicists who need to, I don’t know, actually work with real equipment.

    My knowledge of what astronomers actually do with their time is extremely limited. My colleagues in astronomy do, indeed, seem to spend a lot of time at computers, but I don’t know enough of them to know how representative they are.

    CCPhysicist: A theorist here also, but you probably don’t count me as “faculty” because I merely produce 30 or 40 engineering majors a year and only one physics major in a good year.

    I should’ve included a disclaimer noting that I wasn’t trying to claim that that list was definitive– those are the people from the Mixed States list of feeds whose faculty status and research specialty I was fairly confident in.

    I think it is impossible to get good statistics when you consider how many people might blog about something completely unrelated to what they do for a living.

    Oh, sure. The statistics here suck– the fraction of scientists who blog at all is so small that we’re all little more than statistical fluctuations.

    And, to be sure, there are lots of people blogging about unrelated-to-research things, even on that list– Steve Hsu is mostly a financial news blogger, and Clifford Johnson is mostly of a produce-and-arts-events blogger. And I’ve probably posted more about sports, books, and music than physics in the last month or two.

    Given the constraints of the tiny, tiny sample, though, I think the correlation is clear.