Over the past couple weeks, I’ve exchanged some emails with Chad Orzel, a physicist and fellow science blogger (you can read his entertaining and surprisingly informative blog at Uncertain Principles). He’s also the author of a book called How to Teach Physics to your Dog, which breaks quantum physics down for the layperson (or lay-dog). One of his posts, “Faster than a Speeding Photon”, was selected for the 2012 best online science writing anthology, and as part of the publicity for the book, we’ve been doing a sort of informal e-interview about science blogging. We’d originally planned to cut it up and post it as a Q&A, but that seemed pretty time-consuming, so Chad suggested posting articles in the form of emails from the original conversation (with some light editing).
Chad’s first email/article is at this link:
My reply appears below.
Congrats to you also. And no, I’m not totally sure why my post on pesticides [Sunrise in the Garden of Dreams] got picked for the anthology, given that some of my other posts have been much better. I felt like it was a failure in some ways, because it didn’t really have a clear coherent message (it started out as a post about acetylcholinesterase inhibitors and wound up turning into a rant about GMOs and organic farming). If I had to pick my “best post” ever, I’d probably say my first: bubonic plague in America at http://puffthemutantdragon.wordpress.com/2011/05/30/bubonic-plague-in-america-i-la-outbreak/ . I’m also a little proud of my post about toxic chemicals in vaccines. By far and away my most popular posts, though, have been the ones about illegal drugs.
As far as writing under a pseudonym is concerned, I like the freedom that offers me. I think it means I can write about a broader range of subjects, and it also ensures my blogging habit doesn’t interfere with my career in some negative way (or vice versa). My non-disclosure agreement with my employer prohibits me from identifying myself as their employee on blogs etc. anyway, because otherwise there’s a chance I might be seen as their spokesperson (which clearly I am not).
I’ve always been very careful to avoid writing about anything directly related to what I do for a living. Clearly there are a lot of science bloggers who talk about current events in their industry — Derek Lowe of InThePipeline is one great example. For me personally, though, I just don’t want to take the risk of inadvertently sharing anything that might potentially be confidential info, so I don’t write about anything directly related to pharmaceuticals R&D. But that still leaves me with all kinds of cool stuff I can write about, so it’s not that much of a limitation. Maintaining my anonymity hasn’t been very difficult up until now, but we’ll see how that works as time goes by.
How do I like blogging, you ask? Well, it’s definitely an odd kind of hobby by most people’s standards. You’re spending a few hours a week or whatever writing stuff that will earn you neither money nor acclaim for the benefit of people you don’t know. That’s definitely a little strange, isn’t it? When I started my blog, I was thinking about freelance writing as a possible career (which obviously never took off), but once I started it I gradually got hooked. I think in some ways it just gives me the opportunity to share and talk about nerdy stuff that isn’t directly related to what I do. I guess I’d like to ask you the same question: what keeps you blogging? how did you get started?
One thing that was very difficult for me originally was figuring out where should I focus and who is my target audience? If your goal is to be read by other scientists, then your audience is already familiar with all the terminology, the general principles, the techniques and the basic equations. But if you’re trying to write for a broader audience — for people outside your field, which is what I want to do — then you’ve got to break everything down to a more basic level, which can sometimes be pretty challenging. In general, I’m not very happy with the way the media covers science, because I feel like in their efforts to break things down they leave out all the important details. And I understand their dilemma; they’re trying to take a complicated subject and make it accessible. But I feel like their coverage is so “dumbed-down” it doesn’t really give enough information. I want my blog to be different in the sense that it will both 1) be accessible to someone who doesn’t know anything about biology/chemistry and 2) still dig into the details that make these topics so complex and so fascinating. I don’t feel like any of my posts have completely succeeded in simultaneously achieving both objectives, but I feel like I’m getting better as I go along. (One can hope.)
I really like the way your blog breaks down some (fairly intense) physics and makes it accessible, so I’m a little curious to know how you’ve dealt with this same problem. (I see you also wrote a layman-oriented book about quantum mechanics, so I imagine that gave you some valuable practice!) How do you approach taking something fairly complicated (e.g. particle physics) and explaining it for someone who doesn’t know a lot about physics? And how do you pick which papers you want to cover/subjects you want to blog about? (since obviously you write about some politics/pop culture stuff too)