Blog Table Discussion with Puff the Mutant Dragon (part II)

In which we have the next round of the conversation with Puff the Mutant Dragon. Previous entries here and there.


Amusingly, your post was singled out for high praise in the Knight Science Journalism Tracker review of the book. Probably because Deborah Blum, who wrote it, wrote a book about poisons, so the topic was close to her interests, but still, congrats.

You're definitely right about blogging being a weird hobby. I think it's one of the more interesting but less examined aspects of the rise of social media that there's been this explosion of text writing by all sorts of different people. And, of course, there's all sorts of other media as well-- pictures and video and the quasi-haiku of Twitter. Much of it isn't terribly good, of course, but I think the enabling of individual expression is potentially way more interesting as a general phenomenon than the "blogging is transforming journalism" angle that everybody wants to bang on about all the time. The problem is, I don't entirely know where that leads, but I may wind up teaching something about it next year, so I guess I'll have to learn.

I got into blogging as a sort of outgrowth of my previous online life, on Usenet newsgroups back when that was a thing. I'm just old enough, in Internet terms, to remember when AOL started providing Usenet access, and how badly that degraded some groups I followed. I spent a lot of time hanging out in the science fiction literature groups, and the college basketball group, where I met a bunch of friends and most importantly my wife.

Usenet was all text-based, so that got me in the habit of typing lots of stuff and interacting with people via text on the Internet. For a variety of reasons, though, it started to wind down a bit for me around 2001, but I started a book log in August of that year, and got into reading some of the big early political blogs. I liked the idea of having a blog, but didn't think the world needed another jackass spouting off about politics with no real expertise to offer. Derek Lowe's Lagniappe, the Blogspot predecessor to his current In the Pipeline, made me realize that there was an area where I had something to offer, so I started blogging about physics and what it's like to be a physicist at a small college.

Sorting out who the audience for the blog is has been a complicated business, and my target keeps changing a bit. Back when I started, people I knew from Usenet were a substantial fraction of my readership, so I had a lot more in-jokey references to things nobody else would understand. Also, more ranting about politics, and more cursing. As time has gone on, and I've picked up more readers, I've sort of smoothed a lot of that away, sometimes for pragmatic reasons (I have books to sell, so it doesn't make sense to post a lot of potentially offensive stuff) and sometimes for personal reasons (the current political climate is so polarized that whenever I start writing about it, I end up ranting, and don't especially like the way I sound). Also, after ten years of this, there are some arguments that just clearly aren't going to go anywhere, so I've more or less given up writing about them.

There are also some areas where I've made decisions about my audience that I don't entirely understand. The dog thing is the most obvious example-- I did some silly talking-to-the-dog posts just for fun, and one of them got picked up by Boing Boing, which led to 50,000 people reading it, including an agent who contacted me and set the whole book thing in motion. I easily could've imagined myself writing a general audience book about science at some point, but I never would've thought of writing one around a talking dog. But now there are two of them, and the first is in a whole bunch of different languages, so evidently there's a market for that.

The Q&A format I use for ScienceBlogging posts now (including the one in the book we're promoting, here), for example, is another thing that just kind of happened. I'm not sure why I started it-- just to mix things up a little, because fake Q&A is a thing that people sometimes do-- but it seemed to work pretty well. I've been asked a couple of times who the questioner is, and specifically whether it's the dog asking questions, and I've never really made up my mind about that. I'm actively resisting making a solid decision, there.

As for breaking things down for a general audience, that's one area where there's a nice interplay between my job and my hobby-- since I spend a lot of time teaching physics to college students, I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to make complex ideas understandable. Figuring out how to pitch a physics explanation to students in an intro class gets you about 80% of the way to explaining it for a general audience. And a lot of the time, I end up working out a general-audience sort of version first, then putting equations back in before using it in class. The explanation of the origin of relativity in the book (basically, the first three or four chapters) is drawn directly from my notes for the sophomore-level modern physics class I sometimes teach.

As for how I pick what to write up, one of my personal hobby horses is the way that particle physics and cosmology suck up way too much attention, relative to their real prevalence within the field. My own background is in atomic, molecular, and optical physics, so I try to choose topics related to those, as much as possible. One of the few benefits of the two-month break I took this summer is that it included the big Higgs boson announcement, so I didn't have to force myself to write anything more about that. I'm sick to death of the Higgs boson, and that sort of thing isn't what drew me into physics in the first place. I try to do what little I can to publicize the other cool results coming out of quantum optics and ultra-cold atoms and shading into condensed matter physics.

So, of course, the piece that got picked for this book was about particle physics. Irony is like a big heavy thing made of iron. Or something.

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