“Time and money spent in helping men to do more for themselves is far better than mere giving.” -Henry Ford
Here in the United States, it’s American Thanksgiving, our annual harvest festival. Traditionally, it’s the one day out of the year where we spend it with the people most important to us, and give genuine appreciation for the good things we have in our lives. And there is so much to be thankful for.
Last year, I gave thanks to the entire Universe, from the smallest subatomic particles and the laws that govern them up to the largest and most complex structures that they assemble over time. This year, the Angry Astronomer has beaten me to the punch. And that’s a good thing; I’ve got something much more important to do today.
Every so often, I get sincere requests from people asking for help either starting or expanding their own blogs. For many new bloggers, starting out seems daunting, especially given how many quality blogs there are on a variety of subjects. So this Thanksgiving, I’m happy to thank you — everyone who’s chosen to come and share a little bit of their time by coming by and reading — by telling you a little bit of my personal journey here.
Four years ago, I was at a point in my life that most young theoretical cosmologists would have been incredibly envious of: I’d finished my Ph.D. a year ago, I was working as a postdoc at a prestigious University, and — in my personal life — I was celebrating one full year of being in love with my partner, Jamie. We’d just rescued and adopted a puppy, and… everything should have been great. But on the work-front, something wasn’t right.
This was supposed to be everything I wanted, and yet I was dissatisfied — even unhappy — with the work I was doing. After all, I had spent the better part of a decade studying astronomy and physics, learning about the laws that governed the Universe and the phenomena that arose from them, and feeling like a cave explorer figuring out just how vast, intricate, and beautiful this cave was. At the time, it was everything I wanted in my work, and I would happily throw all of the passion and energy I had for working into learning, studying, and trying to figure all the details of it out.
But by this point, I knew this cave intimately. Yes, there were puzzles and mysteries, and somewhere — as everyone in my field knew (and still knows) — there is more to the cave than what we presently have access to. The cave, to the best of our current understanding, is vast, rich, and fulfilling, but it is also incomplete; it isn’t the full story. So we break out our tiny rock hammers and chip away at the cave walls, trying to find the weak point that will lead us into the next giant room, pushing our knowledge and understanding of the Universe to new frontiers.
And what I learned is, if you’re going to do that, it isn’t enough to want to see the next part of the cave.
And I wanted to know what’s next, what lies beyond our understanding, what dark matter and dark energy really are, what caused inflation, what determines the laws of physics and the fundamental constants. I still do.
But no matter how much I wanted it, I had to accept the hard realization that I didn’t love every step of the journey. And if you don’t love what you’re doing — in my case, tapping gently away at the cave walls with our feeble tools — you’ve got to try to find something that you do love, and that you will find satisfying.
Because I didn’t stop loving the Universe: how it works, the laws that govern it, how it came to be the way it is today, from the strongest gravitational sources to the weakest magnetic fields, from the shortest-lived unstable particles to the nearly-eternal cosmic vacuum, that was what I was most passionate about.
And it’s a story that I didn’t want to tell, over and over with only slight variations in detail, to the same couple of hundred people in the world tapping away at the same part of the cave I was. From my point of view, it’s everyone’s story, and I wanted to bring it to everyone.
So I got myself a website, learned how to set it up for blogging, and in January of 2008, I started writing about it. And when I started out, my traffic was something like a cool 17 visits a day, most of whom were my non-astrophysicist friends, science enthusiasts that I played games/sports with, and my dad’s brother. But I was writing, and the more I wrote, the more comfortable I felt doing so. And I found that I enjoyed it, both for the experience of getting to talk about the things I was really excited about and having an audience of intelligent, genuinely curious people engaging with me, even if it was only a couple of dozen people. Then, after writing about a month’s worth of posts, something happened. One of Jamie’s friends told her to ask me, “How do you make a Black Hole?”
And while every theoretical astrophysicist knows the answer to that, not everyone with that question winds up becoming a theoretical astrophysicist! So I told the world.
And the next day, when I checked my traffic, I saw that — out of nowhere — I had over a thousand visits. I had written something that I was passionate about, that other people were curious about, and through the power of the internet (stumbleupon, in that case), we found each other.
And if you are writing something of quality with passion, clarity, quality, and your own unique voice, and if you can do it in a way that holds your target audience’s attention, you will find each other. You can make it easier for yourself by getting involved with blog communities, carnivals, or by contacting better-known bloggers in your field. (We remember starting out as nobodies, too; if we like what you’ve got we’ll be happy to link to it!) But if you’re passionate about it, and you work at it, and you’ve got something that’s high quality to say, you can make it happen for yourself simply by saying it.
And that’s the “secret” of how you get better at it: you think about what you’re doing, you do it more and more, you look back at what you’re proud of and do more of it, and what you wished you would’ve done differently and do it differently next time. (And you have a short memory for the things you wish you hadn’t said. Every new article is a new chance to get it right.) After about 300 articles (and 15 months) on my original site, I was approached by one of the big blogging networks with an offer to join. And another two-and-a-half years later, I feel like it’s more important than ever to tell you that same story.
And it’s quite possible that I’ll never run out of stories to tell.
It’s taken the Universe nearly 14 billion years to get us here, and I can’t imagine telling you the full story of all we know (and how we know it) in just one lifetime! Combine that with the ongoing news of the things we’re still learning, and with the excitement of getting to be one of the few individuals who gets to bring it to you, and you know what it tells me, when I think about it?
I’m the lucky one, here.
Fast forward to today, and I’m celebrating five years together with the same partner (now my wife; happy anniversary and happy Thanksgiving, Jamie), four years with the same dog, and — thanks to you — the entire rewarding experience of creating one of the best blogs on the internet from nothing. So my thanks to all of you, and I consider myself both lucky and thankful to get to share a little bit of the personal side of my journey to this point with you. Stick with me; there’s still a whole Universe left to explore!