Friday, February 03, 2006

Physics blogs and physicists' blogs

Looking at the physics blogosphere, there is a notable tendency for those blogs that receive the most attention in terms of readers, commenters and incoming links to be physicists' blogs rather than physics blogs. By a physics blog I understand a blog whose contents are devoted to physics, as in physicists advertising their research, teaching the wider public about physics, etc. A physicist's blog, on the other hand, is a blog authored by a physicist, which may well mainly discuss politics, economics, religion, ideology, terrorism, war, drugs, sex, stamp collecting and other such contentious issues. From what I see, it appears pretty clear that many more people read the latter kind of blog than the former.

While I understand that in the current global situation people (and especially people in the US, which still seems to dominate the global blogosphere) become much more worked up about the daily issues in politics, economics, religion etc. than about even the most long-standing physics problems (with the notable exception of anthropic arguments and the landscape), what I don't understand is why they would consider the political, economic or religious views of a particle physicist over e.g. those of an entomologist, an electrical engineer or a seismologist, or even over those of a historian, economist or theologian. I know that theoretical physicists (and most physics bloggers appear to be theorists) have the (partially deserved) reputation of being the professional and academic community with the highest IQ, percentile by percentile, but that does not mean that theoretical physicists are any more likely to be experts on political etc. matters than e.g. limnologists, which as far as I know do not have the same reputation for brilliance.

My point is that being more intelligent in and of itself does not mean being more knowledgeable or having a more balanced point of view; in fact a normally intelligent person with a degree in international history probably has a much better chance of making an important contribution to the debate about, say, the Iraq war, than a highly intelligent rocket scientist, simply because they have the greater wealth of pertinent knowledge on which to base their opinion, and because they are more used to drawing the kind of inferences and analogies that are needed in that context. Even the most brilliant string theorist will need to do some serious study of, say, granular flows before making a serious contribution to that field. The same applies to these debates.

Now, of course, it was noted as early as the days of Socrates that in matters of public policy everybody is assumed to be entitled to hold a point of view, whereas in other areas (Plato mentions shipbuilding and architecture, if I recall correctly) every sensible person defers to the experts. I don't disagree with that at all; in fact I hold strong views on contentious issues myself, and I have no problem stating them where they are asked for, or where I feel that I can make a contribution. But I wouldn't normally proffer them on a global forum like a blog, because I recognize that having a PhD in Theoretical Physics (even if it is from Cambridge) does not make me an expert on foreign relations or the global economy, and I am simply amazed at the number of people who seem to believe that academic credentials in a physics subject confer some degree of importance to writers' views on topics far outside the scope of physics.

So this was a bit of a rant. Anyway, Life on the Lattice is a proud physics blog, and has no intention of becoming a mere physicists' blog. If that means fewer readers, so be it. At least I can rest safe in the assumption that I won't have to be ashamed of what I wrote here in ten years time.


Peter Woit said...

Hi Georg,

I kind of agree with you, and have tried to keep my blog a physics/mathematics blog, and not a physicist/mathematician blog. Years ago I thought my opinions about politics and all sorts of things were especially incisive and it would be great if the world could be exposed to them. One thing about the explosion of blogs is that this made it clear to me that there are a huge number of people out there with opinions not that different than mine, and more time and energy to write about and discuss them. So I think it best to leave this to them. Another thing that the blog explosion makes clear is that, no, the political, etc. opinions of Ph.D. scientists don't seem to be any more sensible than those of the average educated person (and sometimes, quite a lot less sensible).

Then again, I do enjoy reading a lot of this stuff, even if I don't want to write about it myself....

island said...

what I don't understand is why they would consider the political, economic or religious views of a particle physicist over e.g. those of an entomologist, an electrical engineer or a seismologist, or even over those of a historian, economist or theologian.

I've seen no evidence that people "consider" whatever views of a particle physicist to be superior over anybody else's opinion. Especially extreme nihilist liberals who believe that everybody's opinion is eqully valid on all topics... lol

What I don't understand is why scientists allow politics and other outside influences to affect their scientific minds, which is completely apparent where the anthropic principle is involved.

Even Lenny only recognizes the 'the appearance of design in nature'... if he can lose the special implication in an infinite sea of randomly calculated rationale. Otherwise... physicists will keep looking for "natural" explanations", where natural has only purposeless random features, rather than to ever consider the real possibility that this evidence means something to science and not religion.

That's political interference at its worst!

Steve said...

Although I no longer do physics (FWIW, I have a theoretical physics PhD from Cambridge) I faced the same problem of how to focus my blog. My solution to the problem was to split my blog into two blogs; one focussed on my professional work (self-organising networks) and the other for more general issues. I keep finding that there is some overlap between the two, but on the whole this approach has worked OK.

Leucipo said...

A real physicist should write about physics even when he is speaking of any other thing :-)

Jacques Distler said...

I don't think you can easily correlate #comments with #readers. At least, it's not a linear relationship. (Unless I'm mistaken, and some other "physicists's blogs" are receiving in excess of 100,000 page views/1,000,000 hits per day.)

If you feel compelled to measure the "worth" of your blog, perhaps you should take solace in its Google PageRank: an extremely respectable 6/10. Or in the fact that it's ranked #1 in a search for Ginsparg-Wilson relation (among other relevant topics).

In my case, my choice of topics is dictated by where I think I have something worthwhile to contribute. That might be about Physics, it might be about web-design, or MathML or ...

I'd rather avoid repeating stuff that someone else can write about more knowledgeably and more lucidly than I. But I also suspect that I would become rather bored if I restricted myself to just posting on one topic.

Instead, I get to (serially) bore large sections of my audience ...

Georg said...


I agree that the relationship between #readers and #comments is likely rather complex and certainly non-linear, although the correlation is certainly positive. I'm also not the least bit worried about the "value" or "worth" of my blog. Nor am I criticizing your extremely fine blog in any way. Your web design postings are always interesting and relevant, and you obviously have a lot of expertise in those matters.

My point quite simply is this: people should restrict their blogs to issues that they are knowledgable in, or at least try not to mix in any authority they might have on physics questions into their discussions of ideological matters. Otherwise they are doing science a severe disservice by making it appear to the wider public as though scientific questions were part of the arena of public opinion by having posts on physics appear mixed in between numerous posts on matters of opinion. Now there may be cases when it is justified to speak out against some political outrage with the authority of a scientist, but I believe that the politicization of the science blogosphere has gone too far. There is no need to restrict oneself to a single topic (and I don't even do that myself), but a physics blog should be first and foremost about physics (as well as any other matters that have a bearing on physics and its public perception).

If a physics journal or a popular science magazine were to publish articles on politics, people would presumably complain; I see blogs as a cheap and easy form of written medium for news and reviews, which may not be subject to the same quality standards that a journal or magazine should be subject to, but which should conform to the same general code of behaviour.

Jacques Distler said...

I think you hit on the right formulation of that thought in the closing sentence of your post:

"At least I can rest safe in the assumption that I won't have to be ashamed of what I wrote here in ten years time."

I'm very conscious that what I write will be read by a wide audience and will be indexed and archived for posterity. That's something we all need to take seriously. Particularly when we're talking about physics.

"[P]eople should should restrict their blogs to issues that they are knowledgable in, or at least try not to mix in any authority they might have on physics questions into their discussions of ideological matters."

That doesn't worry me so much. On just about any topic I post about (including physics), there are people in the audience who are more knowledgeable than I on that topic. If I say something stupid, I expect them to jump in to correct me.

If I say too many stupid things, too often, people will stop taking anything I write seriously. Fortunately, I have readers who won't let me go down that road. Maybe some others aren't so lucky.

And sometimes, something I write on a completely remote topic turns out to have a startling resonance. Because of the Danish Cartoon controversy, this old post of mine got nearly 6000 visitors today.

Benjamin said...

I think Lubos Motl does a good job of mixing physics and politics, and I like the fact that he is not afraid to say what he thinks. As an engineer who is interested in physics, but who knows hardly any physicists, I am glad to discover that some do have red blood in their veins after all. :-)

Still, your blog is very professional, neat and attractive. It takes all kinds...

Anonymous said...

Oh come on now, Physicists always think they are gods gift to intellectualism, so why should politics be any different =)

There are some amusing anecdotes about Richard Feynman I think, who got in a heated argument with a concert pianist about the theory of music.

Needless to say, he was completely wrong, but that didn't stop him from trying to 'win' the debate.

Having said that, I agree with you completely.

Osame Kinouchi said...

Georg, I would like to known your opinion about this: My blog SEMCIENCIA ( mix discussions in the area of my expertise (statistical physics and complex systems) with very personal humoristic stories about my private life. One guy e-mailed me that this "intimist" flavour was the reason that he linked his scientific blog to mine, since the other are somewhat boring, lacks continuity or simply comment scientific news from other media.
So, I have indeed two questions: a) Complex systems ideas are being applied to economics, politics, history, sociology etc. My comments about issues of these subjects (always linking them to some complex system approach) are political or not? b) My humoristic posts a la "Are you joking Mr. Feynman?" should be put in another (personal) blog? What do you advice to we blogosphere newcomers?

Georg said...

Dear Osame,

I'm not the blog police! My opinions on what I consider appropriate are just my opinions, not some sort of law. Different people feel different things are appropriate, and if you like to post about your private life on your blog, by all means do it. All I was trying to say in this post is that I object to people using their academic respectability as physicists to push their political and ideological views. Again, this is a commentary, not an edict. And since I don't speak Portuguese, I am quite unable to say anything meaningful about the contents of your blog.

Osame Kinouchi said...

Dear Georg, I put a Babel Fish icon so you can translate the page imediatelly. Of course, the translation is sometimes nonsense.
You have not ansered my point: Being a complexy system theorist and since people in my area publish papers in economics, sociology, political theory, cultural evolution etc, perhaps my opinions (and of my coleagues), although from physicists, are somewhat more informed than of an entomologist or electrical engineer... Or not????
But if a cosmologist or particle theorist reads this kin of complexity papers (like GellMan or Smolin do), and undertand them (since the math is more easy in this area than in their area), their comments are also ill informed? I am troubled...

Georg said...

Dear Osame,

The best use I have found for Babelfish so far has been to create computer-generated Dadaism.

I assume you are aware of the difference between a scholarly discussion of, say, voting systems, the economic of taxation, or migratory movements on the one side, and blatant political or ideological propaganda one the other. The latter is what I am complaining about in this post; the former isn't.

andrewhix said...

I agree. I look at the physics and mathematics blogs for better explanations on the subjects than my textbooks can give and when I run into religious/political views it gets me frustrated. Although I just now started a blogging account on here to leave comments, I've been looking at the String Coffee table for quite a while. On another note if everyone seperated their blogs into two sections, one physics and one physicist views on current events that would be great.

gravity control said...

As if you physicists didn't have enough to do have you given thought to gravity control? The beyond oil way of propulsion that doesn't actually include propulsion.

Perhaps some of you have pondered gravity control as an alternative but I suspect not too many of you as you are immersed in the here and now. Some of you who may be interested in the future have probably contemplated antigravity as a way to the stars.

That's our main topic for those of interest.

Nate said...

does anyone know of any good physics blogs? i am 12 years old and i am an aspiring theoretical physicist. I have taught myself real-number calculus, complex number calculus, the basics of twistor theory, riemann surfaces and complex mapping, advanced quantum mechanis, M- theory, type IIA string theory, theories of extra dimesions, what hamiltonions are, and many many other things. I would really like to learn more. so can someone tell me links to good physics blogs? PLEASE!

Georg said...

Nate, I would hope that this is a good physics blog! You may also want to have a look at the blogs listed in the sidebar on the main page of this blog, which taken together cover a large range of interests within physics.

physics said...

i totally agree with you. Physics blog should be more about physics topics and laws.

very often I come across those blogs where the author is talking about himself, where he went, what he did, ... a lost of time