Why So Many Blogging Astronomers?

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.


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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

I don't think there is that much of a difference. For the same reasons that these two groups are overrepresented in today's blogosphere, they would have been disproportionately likely to give comments to newspapers and television shows in previous decades, and some of those people who proved particularly adept at it would have gone on to write popular books and appear in popular TV shows. Think Richard Feynman or George Gamow: if they were alive today, they would probably be bloggers.

Astrophysics does have one edge over other branches of physics, namely the pretty pictures factor, which contributes to their edge in popular books and TV shows. But that carries over into the blogosphere just as easily. See, for example, NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 31 Aug 2010 #permalink

Of the so-called "top science blogs" according to Wikio, 51 of them are from the SEED consortium (ScienceBlogs). Many other top science blogs aren't even counted as science blogs by Wikio so they don't make the top 100.

I don't know about physics blogs but the sample is certainly not representative of biology blogging on the web. Do you think the "problem" could be due to the biases of ScienceBlogs and Wikio rather than some true representation of what's out there?

Astronomy has also the benefit of being visible every night. People have been thinking WTF? since childhood, when they for the first time looked up and saw stars.

And you must admit that most of astronomy can be understood with simple Newtonian physics. Tensors and 11-dimensional strings are for Mad Scientists. But try to explain transistors or Bose-Einstein condensate with 17th century math...

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 31 Aug 2010 #permalink

A number of the Seed links are outdated, as well-- several of the blogs listed moved over Sodamageddon.

I can't speak to the representation of biology blogs, as I don't read that many of them. When I talk about physics blogs above, I'm mostly basing it on my own knowledge of the physics blogosphere, which includes a lot of people who don't make the Wikio list. The total sample is still skewed toward astronomy and particle physics.

Speaking as a fellow physics blogger who mostly covers the applied/practical stuff (at least at CPP), I think it just reflects the balance that already exists in the broader media/community. There's always been a tension between AMO/condensed matter/materials physics and high energy/astrophysics communities, and the latter has a far easier time generating press, in my experience, while coverage of the former invariably focuses on practical application. The former also can be a tougher sell to a layperson, so there tends to be far less coverage, even in science publications -- or it gets lumped in with "technology" especially in the case of interdisciplinary research. For some people, "physics" is a very narrow discipline. My own definition is quite a bit broader.

As for Razib's study, an analysis of the Wikio list alone is already pretty limiting --and it's frankly tough to pin down the content of many blogs as being solely about one kind of science or another, in the same way it can be tricky to analyze how much of SB content is political vs about actual science. We tend to see what we want to see. :)

for the record, it wasn't my analysis. that being said, we've seen this general trend for years. we talked about it when science blogs started (chad was wondering why bio bloggers were overrepresented, alex palazzo was kvetching about why there weren't many molecular people, RPM wondered where the ecology ppl were, etc.). i think it's robust.

in the same way it can be tricky to analyze how much of SB content is political vs about actual science.

someone did do a post-by-post analysis of this in 2007. it was kept internally at seed (it was done by a concerned blogger, who passed on the results to management). just required lots of labor hours. the breakdowns were just as you'd expect.

anyway, i don't think this is really that subjective. we know that science bloggers lean to the left too. the question isn't do they, just how far (we've done some quantitative analysis on scienceblogs.com before).

There are successful popular Materials Science books. I thought of this one:

The New Science of Strong Materials or Why You Don't Fall through the Floor (Princeton Science Library) by J. E. Gordon and Philip Ball (Paperback - Jan 30, 2006)
Buy new: $22.95 $15.61

I haven't read, but in this context I also think of

The Physics of Nascar: The Science Behind the Speed by Diandra Leslie-Pelecky (Paperback - Jan 27, 2009)
Buy new: $16.00 $6.40

I'd be interested to see what response you might get to the question, "what popular or good Materials Science/AMO/... books have people read?" The most recent book list post you've done seems to be "So You'd Like to Learn Some Physics...", which includes only theory books. I have a feeling, however, that the popularizations are technology rather than Science.

There's some AMO drama in this news release:

But I think it's somehow easier to write popular books about QM? What does Emmy have to say?

By Peter Morgan (not verified) on 31 Aug 2010 #permalink