Speakeasy Science

Apologies to Alfred

She clasps the crag with crooked hands
Close to the sun in lonely lands

Writing is in someways a lonely land, or lonely may not be the precise word I’m looking for. There’s a kind of necessary solitude, the need for a clear space. At my home office, this usually means me telling the kids, “Go yell at each other somewhere else so that I can think.”

You take your quiet places where you find them. I’m currently in my hotel room in Amman, Jordan, where its just me, the laptop, and some really good coffee. But it’s really an internal quiet some times. I write in noisy bars too – when I was working on my book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, I got some of my best inspiration while drinking sidecars and listening to a clatter of sound.

Ring’d with the azure world she stands

When I started my blog, Speakeasy Science, I wanted it to be part of the bigger world, of course. And I wanted it to have some of that sidecar-and-sound feel to it. The chemistry cafe, the Periodic Table Pub, okay, I can’t think of any other great alliteration, but a place for a conversation about this gorgeous, complicated and fundamental science. It began as a Word Press blog on my author page and I was genuinely honored, this spring, to be invited to move it to Science Blogs.

And at Science Blogs, let me say, the conversation has been wonderful. I’ve learned a fantastic amount from the comments on my posts, enjoyed the arguments (most recently the great discussion following Warriors Against Claptrap). I’ve had the pleasure of exploring chemical stories that fascinate me – from the poisonous nature of the precious metal gold to all the chemical mischief-making in the Gulf of Mexico.

I’ve met, admired, and even envied many of my fellow bloggers here – for their stylish way with words and their commitment to writing blogs that matter. And they do matter – they illuminate science in breathtaking and wonderfully diverse ways. I’ve loved being a part of that.:

The wrinkled sea below her crawls

But, of course, things have gotten complicated at Science Blogs, following the PepsiCo sponsored blog fiasco. Yes, Sb management has worked extremely hard to learn from the basic mistake: when you sell credibility, you basically lose it.

Yes, it would have been great if management had figured that out in advance. And yes, to give them great, Sb management has been working really hard to make things right in the aftermath.

But, as I said, writing for all its communal nature requires a comfortable solitude. And for a journalist-blogger like me, that means I write from the self-respecting corner of my life, the place where I work really hard to get it right and am proud not only of the product but of where it appears.

And I just haven’t been able to do that at Sb these days. It’s like trying to write while sitting in a chair with a broken leg. There are lots of ways to write about science – funny or serious, investigative or literary – but it has to be done from a solid platform of mutual respect between writer and reader, blogger and blogging home. I can’t write the stories I want to tell when I’m worried about the integrity of the chair I’m sitting in – and my own integrity along with it.

She watches from her mountain walls

I’ve been traveling so much for my work with the World Federation of Science Journalists and next year’s meeting in Cairo that I missed the initial protest and walk outs. I’ve never believed in after the fact hissy fits and I wanted to take some time to think it over.

I listened, talked to people, read some amazingly thoughtful discussions of the issues raised by the Sb crisis in context of science blogging, its role and its directions. One of the best posts to evaluate the need for change (also a farewell to Sb) – is the recent one from A Blog Around the Clock:

As we all know, writing is thinking. During this same period, I’ve tried to actually write a post. I got interested in the homicidal use of household bleach but couldn’t make it work. I wrote almost an entire post on the annual dead zones in the Gulf (not related to the BP spill but to our continued, heavy-handed use of nitrogen-based fertilizers) and ended up depressing myself.

I realized I couldn’t stay – couldn’t write without constantly testing the chair legs, couldn’t hold onto my self-respect as a journalist blogger, couldn’t keep the curious alchemy of writing for fun and fascination that makes me actually love my blog and what I’m trying to do with it.

And like a thunderbolt she falls

The trouble with building a post around the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is that you end up with a vain-glorious line like the one above. And in my case, with some serious mixing of metaphors – chairs, cliffs, not good. Of course, the poem isn’t a perfect fit anyway. If you know “The Eagle: A Fragment” – you know that the bird is all male and all power. This is a Victorian poet, after all.

But I’ve always loved its sheer power (Tennyson is so much better in short bits) and as I thought about my decision, I liked that step-off-the cliff kind of image to leaving, free-fall into something new and different. I’m talking to a couple other blog networks about moving Speakeasy Science to other collaboration location and I hope to do that.

But until then, I’ll be posting at my old home.

Hope to see you there. The chairs are good, promise.

Comments

  1. #1 Grant
    July 20, 2010

    For anyone trying to find her blog, take the leading ‘www.’ off the URL, i.e.

    http://blog.deborahblum.com/

    I’m going to put together some sort of page with all the blogs so that I can use it as a jumping point for myself, and in case it’s of use to others. You’re being added to the list so I won’t lose track of you! :-)

  2. #2 Ed Yong
    July 20, 2010

    The trouble with building a post around the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is that you end up with a vain-glorious line like the one there.

    The upshot, of course, is that you come across as some sort of literary goddess if you pull if of. Which you did. So you do. ;-)

  3. #3 Art
    July 20, 2010

    You can paint this as reflectively and poetically as you like and how it all affected your precious inner harmony but lets keep things straight. An undesirable moved in on your cloistered little street and in response you are fleeing to the suburbs where the people are more reliably just like you.

    Always interesting to see how people define themselves. When trouble comes some will stand and defend the community, and some will run.

  4. #4 JLowe
    July 20, 2010

    I’ll see you there. While reading you on ScienceBlogs probably introduced me to The Poisoner’s Handbook sooner than later, I’d grown a bit weary of the place even before the PepsiCo thing. But I’ve enjoyed what you’ve written – I particularly loved the arsenic pieces – and I’ll come back to read some more.

  5. #5 Carl Zimmer
    July 20, 2010

    Art [1]: I can save you some work. Here’s my running list: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2010/07/07/oh-pepsi-what-hath-thou-wrought/

    Art [2]: Your metaphor isn’t just nasty. It’s confused. Is Pepsi supposed to be the poor folks moving into the neighborhood, or the enemy against which Deborah is supposed to defend her community. Or both?

    Deborah: See you at the new/old Speakeasy!

  6. #6 EMJ
    July 20, 2010

    Your wonderful prose is certain to be very missed in this busy cafe. I’ve so enjoyed reading your work since you’ve been here at Sb but I know only too well the need for a comfortable solitude when you work. You will be greatly missed here but I am looking forward to being inspired (and sometimes depressed) with the marvels you produce in your private laboratory.

  7. #7 Brian Switek
    July 20, 2010

    Deborah – I think you are right about the free-fall feeling. Leaving Sb without knowing where your safety net is feels risky, but who knows where you might land or what might happen on the way down? It can’t really be worse than what happened here – as you said, it is difficult to write when there is no communication or respect. Regardless of where Speakeasy Science goes, I’ll follow, and I am certainly glad that you are going to keep experimenting in your writing lab.

  8. #8 Deborah Blum
    July 20, 2010

    Thanks so much, Brian. I really appreciate the support. Same goes for me – a fan where ever you go. I really love reading your work.

  9. #9 Deborah Blum
    July 20, 2010

    I really appreciate these very kind words. And I appreciate you understanding my point – not trying to be a prima donna, but just to write like I love it.

  10. #10 Deborah Blum
    July 20, 2010

    I’ve really appreciated your smart comments and your support here as well. I’d like to get back to doing some more poison, history, crime pieces. Love to hear what you think.

  11. #11 Deborah Blum
    July 20, 2010

    Better said that I could, Carl. Thanks for the support – especially appreciated from one of my favorite science writers.

  12. #12 Deborah Blum
    July 20, 2010

    Thanks much, Grant. I fixed the link in the post. Can’t believe I did that – not enough coffee or sleep, obviously!

  13. #13 Deborah Blum
    July 20, 2010

    Art (2) I have to say that the “just like you” argument always makes me laugh. Although I have had a hard time finding a community of short, half-Jewish, half-Methodist southerners living in Wisconsin, married to Norwegian-Americans, and currently writing on a dining room table at a friend’s home in Cairo. When you find those safe suburbs, let me know, of course.

  14. #14 Sean Carroll
    July 20, 2010

    It must be a pain in the ass to move so soon after you just started blogging here — not to mention suffering the occasional bizarre comment in response — but ultimately you’re right, you have to be comfortable where you are writing. Especially about the homicidal uses of household bleach. (I presume, anyway.)

    Good luck with the move.

  15. #15 Deborah Blum
    July 20, 2010

    Thanks, Sean. Yes, blog whiplash. I really did hate to move again so soon. But now I’m inspired to try that homicidal bleachers story again. I hate to waste some really excellent research into bleach chemistry:)

  16. #16 Deborah Blum
    July 20, 2010

    Okay, Ed, made the day. And I much appreciate the boost. The right thing but not entirely the easy thing.

  17. #17 arvind
    July 20, 2010

    Deborah, I’ve only recently come across your wonderful blog, and will follow your writing from wherever you choose to keep writing. Here’s to steady chairs and the horrors of homicidal household bleach (I’m imagining a blobby bleachman bubbling out of my bottle of bleach and floating menacingly toward me)

  18. #18 Tom Levenson
    July 20, 2010

    Deborah,

    Nicely said, very much so, and the right decision, clearly: if you can’t write what you want, you can’t stay where you are. It doesn’t matter why.

    I look forward to more of the very good stuff (not to be served to those you love, of course) in the once and future digs.

    (PS — also love the Tennyson. Though occasionally the worst of the good lord kind of merges into the generic Victorian awfulness like that of one Poet Laureate or other, who, occasionally versifying on the subject of the Prince of Wales’ illness, wrote “Across the electric wires the news came/He is no better; he is much the same.”

    Gotcha! :)

  19. #19 Deborah Blum
    July 20, 2010

    Ouch. But you know, Tom, it DOES rhyme:)

    i’ve always thought that if he’d spent less time on the glories of battle (into the valley of death, etc. etc.) and more as a nature poet, he’d have a greater following today. i even like the “nature, red in tooth and claw” line. but listen to me, upgrading the career of one of Britain’s most famous poets. That’s what happens when you blog – opinions about improving everything.

  20. #20 Grant
    July 20, 2010

    Deborah,

    Happy to help.

    Funny you mention bleach. In the way that “everything connects,” in a recent post I wrote about research investigating the anti-bacterial properties of honey one of the substances identified was hydrogen peroxide.

  21. #21 Deborah Blum
    July 20, 2010

    Isn’t that perfect? I so will link to your post when I write that piece. It reminds me of when I was a kid and my dad – an entomologist – was studying the antiseptic properties of fire ant venom. Thanks again, Grant.

  22. #22 Abel Pharmboy
    July 24, 2010

    Deborah, I missed this lovely post in my own breakdown and set-up of my own blog, now relocated to WordPress. I absolutely adored the previous design Speakeasy Science because it was as elegant as your writing.

    I believe that I was in the middle of The Poisoner’s Handbook when you moved over to ScienceBlogs. While I was delighted to share this space with you (and be able to say, “Well, yeah, I *do* write where Deborah Blum does”), I sensed shortly thereafter that this might not be the best place for many of us.

    Your work with Mary Knudson, Robin Marantz Henig, and others I admire on the NASW’s A Field Guide for Science Writers has been a great education for me in improving my writing. And while your latest book captivated me and my 8-year-old PharmKid (who loves science-related murder mysteries already), I must now go back and read through your works – I’m told that The Monkey Wars is one of the best and most balanced books on research animal use and medical innovations.

    I now think of you every time I read of poisons or poisonings – did you know that terra sigillata could be an antidote for some poisons? – and I hope one day to write with even a fraction the richness and color on display in The Poisoner’s Handbook.

    And even though you didn’t get to that post on bleach homicides, I’ll be wary if my wife goes to the laundry room the next time we have a disagreement.

    I very much look forward to our continued interactions – I have so much to learn from you.

  23. #23 Deborah Blum
    July 26, 2010

    I’m so glad to see this comment because I’ve been so out of touch, or time, (traveling in the Middle East and missed your decision to return to Word Press. That’s where I am as well but you are a much bigger Sb loss than me! I appreciate your very kind words about Poisoner’s Handbook – I didn’t know that about Terra Sigilata – must do more research! Monkey Wars is very balanced; my agent always says that it would have sold better if I’d taken a side but I didn’t want to do that, just wanted to make the case that there were valid points on both sides and that we should listen to each other. I love the ability of science writing to make people think and I am huge fan of your ability to do that well – and look forward to reading your terrific blog wherever you go.

  24. #24 ev dekorasyon
    August 2, 2010

    Thanks, Sean. Yes, blog whiplash. I really did hate to move again so soon. But now I’m inspired to try that homicidal bleachers story again. I hate to waste some really excellent research into bleach chemistry:)

  25. #25 sohbet
    September 5, 2010

    Show me a body-wide map of these “Colagenous bands” correlating with the “meridians” and I’ll be more interested than with this limited and mostly negative study.