Over in Discover-land, Razib has a couple of posts about the content of science blogs, based on an analysis of the content of the top science blogs according to Wikio. Razib’s second post is sparked by a pointed question from the author of the original study:
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?
This is, of course, an obvious place to point out that I do occasional condensed matter blogging, and also that I’ve talked about this issue before, and we’ve even got the thoughts of an honest-to-God condensed matter physicist on the subject.
I do have another theory about why certain fields of physics are over-represented, though, that has to do with the nature of the work done in different fields.
If you look at a list of physical science blogs, you’ll find an awful lot of blogs by astronomers, theoretical physicists, and experimental particle physicists. What these fields have in common, structurally, is that they are all heavily desk-based sciences. Astronomy and experimental particle physics both use lots of computer data analysis routines (to process images from CCD cameras in astronomy, and to sift through terabytes of collision data in particle physics), and theoretical physics is done either on a computer or with pencil and paper, often in places where there are also computers.
People working in these areas of physical science, then, spend a great deal of time sitting at or near computers, often waiting for code to run. Which means they have lots of time to poke around on the Internet, reading blogs and suchlike, and that segues easily into writing blogs.
Low-energy experimental physics, on the other hand, is a more hands-on activity, involving more time spent in labs rather than in offices. Which means that experimental physicists in areas like my own Atomic, Molecular, and Optical physics, or Condensed Matter physics tend not to be near the computer as much. Throw in that fields like particle physics are dominated by large collaborations, which frees up some resources for things like writing institutional blogs (as some of the funding-chasing activities that small groups have to do on their own are taken care of in a more collaborative manner), and you would naturally expect theoretical and particle physicists to do a disproportionate share of the blogging, even though there are at least as many low-energy experimentalists out there.
(Why do I have time to blog, then, given that I am a low-energy experimentalist? I don’t get into the lab that much these days, and I’m spending a lot of time procrastinating from doing things that are intrinsically computer-based.)
That’s the structural theory. Which is almost certainly not the whole story, given that popular books and tv shows are even more disproportionately biased toward astronomy and particle physics, but I think it plays a role. Notice that, while there are specialist blogs about theory and some fairly high-level particle experimentalist blogs, there really aren’t specialist blogs about low-energy experimental physics. There’s no reason there couldn’t be, particularly in a collegial field like AMO physics, where people aren’t all that cutthroat, but I think that the people who could do that sort of thing are busy in ways that don’t allow a great deal of computer time.