In which we look back on the ninth full year of this blog, and one of the most unpleasant incidents in the whole run, which nearly ruined what was otherwise a good year.
This is probably going to be the longest of these posts, at least in terms of the number of links included– I’ve got all of the worthwhile-looking posts open in tabs, and it comes to 82 total. I may ditch a few of them during the post-writing process, but we’ll see how that goes.
Anyway, this blog year kicked off with probably the least enjoyable incident of the entire run, namely Sodamageddon. The higher-ups at Seed cut a deal with Pepsi to run a sponsored blog about food science, with content generated by Pepsi employees, but a template that was nearly indistinguishable from the rest of ScienceBlogs. And all Hell broke loose.
Even at a remove of nearly two years, this is an unpleasant period to recall. The resulting fissuring of ScienceBlogs was due to more than just the Pepsi thing– there were a lot of tensions that had been built up over a long period, some of them grounded in legitimate complaints, some of them less so. Things got a little ugly out in public, and more so behind the scenes.
I was kind of blindsided by the whole thing, in part because I had stopped paying any attention to the back-channel discussions some time earlier, and in part because I think there had been a shift in the way ScienceBlogs perceived itself, with more bloggers coming to see themselves as filling a journalistic role, in which case the severe breach of journalistic ethics that the Pepsi thing represented was directly damaging to them and their professional credibility.
As I said at the time, I’ve never really thought of myself or the blog that way. This is my space, and what I post here stands or falls on my own merits as a writer and a scientist. Over my (then) four-and-a-half years at ScienceBlogs, any sense of the site as a whole greater than the sum of its blogs had faded, and I now consider it basically as a blogging platform, and not much more. This is partly a defense mechanism, I know– several of the political dust-ups over the years involved behavior that I find much more personally objectionable than the Pepsi blog. If I thought of the site as more than a blogging platform, I would’ve felt obliged to leave rather than be associated with that.
As I said, though, there was more to it than that, though I don’t feel comfortable going into much detail even a couple of years after the fact. Let’s just say that there were issues regarding cash flow and tech support issues, as well as some inter-blog bickering, all of which contributed to people leaving. I’m not sure the Pepsi thing by itself would’ve broken the site as badly as it did, but it hit at a time when there were a lot of stresses on the site already, and thus was the proverbial camel-killing straw.
I did make a few quiet inquiries about the possibility of relocating to another network, but didn’t make any serious effort in that direction. It might’ve been possible, but I didn’t get far enough in the process to find out, both out of loyalty (the folks at Seed had been very good to me over the years, and I felt that a lot of the specific criticisms were ill-founded), and laziness (moving the blog would require rebuilding everything again, which would be hassle I didn’t need, especially as the blog was and is a good tool for promoting my books). So I decided to stick around.
There were definitely bridges burned in this process, though– people who basically haven’t spoken to me since. Some of that is my own fault, which I regret– I said a few harsh things out of frustration. The way everything went down was really maddening to watch. I’ve never felt more isolated as a blogger than in the immediate aftermath of the Pepsi debacle, and while it’s gotten somewhat better, it’s still a far cry from the early days of ScienceBlogs.
The most frustrating part of the whole thing was that prior to the gigantic blow-up, things had been going better than ever, blog-wise. 2009 and 2010 saw some of the very best writing I think I’ve done on this blog, and to have all that overshadowed by something that was so fundamentally stupid (the sponsored blog thing was a pretty terrible idea, more or less guaranteed to create a problem) was really infuriating.
But enough maudlin crap– on to the good blogging bits:
There were two really good trends that I had going during this stretch, one of which was ResearchBlogging: once I wandered into doing the Q&A format, I really hit a groove with these, and started doing a lot of them. In the 2010-2011 blogging year, I wrote up the proton size measurement, a test of quantum probability rules, a review of quantum information in Rydberg atoms, a bunch of gravitational measurements, a search for a changing fine-structure constant (which doesn’t have a ResearchBlogging logo because it was only a preprint at that stage), a famous quantum optics experiment, the trapping of antihydrogen, a demonstration of wavelike behavior of large organic molecules, a physics education paper on active engagement classes, an experiment testing a new regime in Brownian motion, the latest on the search for an electric dipole moment of the electron, and an extremely impressive experiment using weak measurements to reconstruct particle trajectories. And those are just the ones that made it past the traffic-based pre-filtering I did to compile these links. There were also write-ups about watching a phase transition in an ultracold gas, and a similar paper about melting simulated insulators, plus another on the statistics of beams of ultracold atoms, which I turned up because I clearly remember writing them, even if they didn’t make the cut-off for the pre-filter.
That right there is a good collection of posts that I’m pretty proud of. If not for the fact that it would be an enormous pain in the ass to secure the necessary rights to figures and do the formatting, I would happily bundle those all together in an ebook type package (along with a bunch of those from earlier years). Those posts are a category where I feel like I’ve been able to offer something fairly unique. It’s also extremely gratifying to me that several of the authors of these papers have emailed me or come up to me at meetings to tell me how much they liked my write-up of their work.
The other category of things that I did a lot of is a little more nebulous, but could maybe be described as unusual applications of physics. This includes things like using SteelyKid video to explain electron spin, applying astrophysics to her bedtime stories, or using her toys to explain quantum teleportation. It also includes experiments done for the blog, like testing whether you should leave your car windows open a crack on a hot day, or modeling the dynamics of our backyard pond fountain (with a follow-up later), or using my book’s sales rank to demonstrate Benford’s Law, or trying to reverse engineer Amazon’s sales rank calculation. And even some calculations of odd things, like whether you could use the transverse Doppler effect to find planets, or whether barrels of “heavy water” would really sink, or taking a misquote seriously to do a physics calculation, or jokingly proposing a health fad. I had a lot of fun with this stuff, and I think some of it’s pretty good. The “Goodnight Moon” bit even got me a phone-in spot on a morning tv show in California, which was weird but fun.
Another big preoccupation during this year was writing How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog, which I sold that summer. I did more working-out of ideas for this one on the blog, with posts about accelerator physics, faster-than-light travel and causality, mass and energy, and one directly asking for information about particle physics all feeding into the book in one way or another. Writing a book about relativity after a book about quantum mechanics also led to a couple of posts comparing the two: one considering which is easier to understand, and the other considering which has been tested more precisely.
The Physics Stack Exchange site was launched during this window, and provided fodder for a number of posts, in a more straightforwardly explanatory vein. One about interfering independent lasers also inspired a ResearchBlogging post from the list above, about the famous Pfleegor-Mandel experiment. I also talked about the propagation of light, defined quantities and measurement standards, whether simulation results count as data, the uses of Bose-Einstein Condensation, and thermal radiation. I eventually got too busy at work to check in at the Stack Exchange site, and once I got out of the habit of reading it daily, I stopped reading it at all. I should really get back to that, but I’m even busier now.
I also answered questions that weren’t from the Stack Exchange, producing explainer posts about superconductors with a follow-up on what cold atoms can tell us about the process, how we know photons exist (and again, with more math), and wind and temperature. With somewhat less prompting, I wrote about quantum uncertainty and zero-point energy. I did a post on topological insulators that was sort of self-prompting– I got a bunch of requests for it after writing about how nobody cares about condensed matter physics. There was also a series of posts discussing the hardware needed to make cold atoms: vacuum, optics, electronics, and other methods.
There were a scattering of posts about recurring topics, as well. On math, I wrote about the unimportance of calculators, algebra and critical thinking. Regarding communication and education, I wrote about necessary communications skills, physics for pre-meds, how to read scientific papers, a terrible proposal for evaluating teaching, the Evil Professor Magic Trick, and the conundrum posed by educational research. In general academia, there were posts about the two cultures problem, grade inflation, students who are coasting. Every year has a few cathartic rants about crazy people, such as this one about a terrible TED talk, and this one about somebody who was complaining about Jonah Lehrer before that was cool. I also wrote a book review that led to a crazy person sending a bunch of emails to my chair, which was a real highlight, let me tell you.
I also did a couple of posts on the ever-popular (to me at least) topic of how we’re too quick to let people off the hook for scientific illiteracy. The second of these is a big part of the current work-in-progress, tough progress has been fairly minimal in recent weeks. There were also a couple of entries in the “I’ll never make it as a philosopher” category, on statistics and the supernatural, the Born rule, and what, if anything, we learn from improbable events. And, of course, there was some flat-out silliness, with joke Halloween costumes, a tongue-in-cheek look at experiment vs. theory, and a proposal for a physics-based cult.
I’ll close this section, though, with the series of posts I did based on my invited talk at DAMOP last year, summarizing the entire meeting: five posts explaining what’s interesting about ultracold matter, extreme lasers, quantum phenomena, “traditional” AMO physics, and precision measurement in AMO physics. Those technically spill over into the next “year,” but I wanted to keep them all together, because I think they’re one of the best things I’ve done on the blog.
Discussion of political-type things was dominated by Sodamageddon, spilling over into the Virginia Heffernan incident, where a writer for the New York Times pretty much said all the things I was afraid people would say about ScienceBlogs as a whole. Other than that, again, there wasn’t a lot that I’d care to keep– only two serious posts, one about a rhetorical strategy that makes me unhappy with a lot of gender-based discussions, and another about whether we’re as overrun with incompetent teachers as people would have you believe.
Really, though, the best political posts of the year were jokes, one a sarcastic response to the Tea Party, and the other the Tale of Little Red Robin Hood. Which tells you something about the state of modern politics and my relationship with it.
Again, I suspect that the traffic-based pre-filtering is doing no favors, here, but it’s too much hassle to sort through these, otherwise. The selection of stuff clearly shows the effects of the filer– the Scientist-Approved Beach Reading post got a bunch of traffic from the New York Times for a while, and look at a silly article about past lives, some mockery of a dopey tv show, and a good idea for an audience-participation thread. My favorite of the lot, though, is the Christmas-themed look at bearded mentor figures in the literature of the fantastic. which tells you something about where I’m at, I suppose.
And that’s 2010-2011 for you, in a nutshell. We’ll wrap this all up tomorrow, only a few days past the actual tenth anniversary of the founding of this blog.