In which we review yet another good year of blogging, including the establishment of some ongoing series. And also a useful reality check.
This great blog re-read project has been useful for a couple of reasons. First, it’s reminded me that there have been long stretches of time when I produced a lot of good stuff for the blog. When I initially considered this, I was a little afraid that the whole thing would be depressing, and I wouldn’t have anything good to point to. If anything, though, I’ve had the opposite problem– cutting things down to a manageable length (assuming these mammoth posts can be deemed manageable) has been kind of difficult.
Of course, it’s also provided a useful reality check, by reminding me that one of the most consistent traffic-driving posts of the last several years was just me bitching about animals damaging my car. This continued to get new comments, right up until the Great Upgrade started, and I closed comments on old posts.
It’s not quite as humbling as bacon taped to a cat, but still. Too much fucking perspective.
2009 was, of course, the year when How to Teach Physics to Your Dog was released, in December, so there was a good deal of material generated having to do with the book, and trying to promote it. This started a little before the actual release, with a problematic pairing from Amazon, but also included some list-type posts after the release, pointing to Four Things Everybody Should Know About Quantum Physics and Seven Essential Elements of Quantum Physics. It’s striking, looking back on this, how much more work it is to summarize quantum mechanics than relativity. Relativity can be summed up in a single sentence that, annoyingly, fits the speaking cadence of the previous president of the college: “The laws of physics do not depend on how you move.” Everything else flows from that simple idea. Quantum, on the other hand, requires between four and seven bullet points, each of which need a little unpacking.
Not directly related to book promotion, but contributing to my nerd fame, was the Bohr-Einstein Debates, With Puppets. This was the payoff for the 2009 Donors Choose fundraiser, and a whole lot of fun to put together. I wish I had time to do more of these.
I also did some meta-writing about the book, first talking about the awkwardness of writing trade books as an academic, and then taking umbrage at somebody telling me that I shouldn’t be doing outreach. I also gave an inside look at the process of writing the book.
There were a few recurring series during this time, two of which have “Smackdown” in the title: I did several “Historical Physicist Smackdown” posts, polling people about lesser-known great physicists, and then explaining their contributions. There was also the Laser Smackdown, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the first working laser, where I wrote up a dozen different cool applications of lasers, and held a vote to determine the coolest laser application of ALL TIME. In a somewhat more serious vein, this year also saw the first call for non-academic scientists to talk about their jobs for the Project for Non-Academic Science (name chosen to match the acronym for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, because it amused me to do so). The last round of these was about a year ago, so I probably ought to put out another call for volunteers.
I also did a few “Pop Quiz” posts, posing multiple choice questions: one about a Michelson Interferomater (answer here), one about lenses (answer here), and one about relativity (answer here). And, of course, there was a poll about pop quizzes…
I did a fair bit of writing about current research this year, with posts on Zitterbewegung!, an experimental realization of a sort of Maxwell demon cooling, the cooling of a “macroscopic” object to its ground state, measuring the angular momentum of light, and confirming the quantum statistical properties of photons. The “macroscopic” cooling one appears to be the first time I did one of these in the now-standard Q&A format, which an interviewer asked me about just the other day. As it says in that post, I originally did it just to very things up a little bit, but it seemed to work. I never have decided, though, if the questioner is actually the dog, though several people have asked me that.
I also did a lot of physics posts that were sort of silly. The biggest post of 2009, traffic-wise, was The Speed of God, calculating the velocity needed to have relativistic time dilation stretch seven days of cration over 13.7 billion years. I also took a fairly light-hearted look at the packing of breakfast cereal, the science of GPS, Fourier analysis of traffic to the blog, stupid things football announcers say, fluid dynamics in hotel showers, and a musical tribute to quantum interpretations. That last one grew out of a comment on a serious post about Bohmian mechanics, which just goes to show you something or another.
Speaking of quantum foundations, there was another bout of discussing Many-Worlds, which made me thoroughly sick of the subject, and thus makes a nice lead-in to posts where I yelled at people, saying derogatory things about A.O. Scott, Ancient Aliens— twice— some physicists who I won’t name here because they vanity Google, and Michio Kaku and Deepak Chopra. Happily, I’m beneath the notice of the last two, otherwise it might’ve been really awkward when I was on Kaku’s radio show earlier this year…
I didn’t do that much life-in-the-lab stuff, laregely because I wasn’t spending much time in the lab by this time, but I did write a description of ConFlat vacuum hardware, and used a picture of my apparatus (used as the “featured image” for this post) as a visual joke to poke fun at a dippy theoretical paper that got too much attention. I also talked about physics things that have kept me up late at night, which do not include the Higgs boson. In more general physics-y topics, I wrote about the many meanings of “adiabatic”, “beauty” and how economics is like astronomy, science that was really “ahead of its time”, the ever-popular issue of distribution of science funding, and what one thing would be most useful to pass on to a post-apocalyptic society.
In more general academic life material, I ranted about a very stupid op-ed on education, offered a taxonomy of bad meetings, gave some presentation tips, and solicited input on technical writing. Finally, shading us toward politics, I wrote about the dismal state of public knowledge and a change in the reporting of public knowledge, a lot of which I could say again in the wake of the recent release of another “Science Report Card” and the beating Kevin Drum has taken over his comments on it.
Showing the fuzzy line between academic-life articles and more general political articles, I also ranted at some length about a dumb “college costs too much” op-ed that was so irritating, it got published twice. When I sorted these, I put this one under Politics, but left the previous one in the academic-life section of Physics, for reasons that are somewhat unclear even to me. I think it’s the cheap shot at the American Enterprise Institute. Likewise, this rant about educational consultants probably tips into politics because it’s a particularly loathesome example of class barriers in education, the sort of thing that brings out my bloodthirsty communist tendencies.
Of course, I may have put those under Politics just to fill out the category, because other than objecting to hyperbolic language from the atheist brigade, I didn’t write a lot of political stuff worth noting. That was largely because this was the year when my frustration with stupid blog arguments hit the tipping point, and I radically scaled back my reading list. I wiped out all my Google Reader subscriptions at that point, and only restored a handful of mostly science-oriented blogs afterwards. This has been vastly better for my personal stress levels, though it’s certainly changed the emphasis of the blog.
This is the area where we really see the weakness of the traffic-based pre-filtering that I had to resort to to get through this re-read. Some of my very favorite bits of writing here are just silly pop-culture riffs, like this Tower of Babel spoof accompanying a video of SteelyKid. And those draw almost no traffic– I happened to remember that one, and searched for it directly. I may well have missed some others, which is kind of sad.
Anyway, the few pop-culture items that survived the pre-filter include a look at the first Wheel of Time book by Brandon Sanderson, a discussion of what I’d like to see in “urban fantasy” but don’t, and a list of unconventional love songs that ought to be better known.
That brings us to the summer of 2010, shortly before Epic Blog Drama exploded all over the place. But we’ll leave that for next time, as it should be.