Blogging in science and mathematics

In a splendid post – reproduced in full (indented) – Kyle Finchsigmate highlights the difference between chemistry and other sciences.

WTF is up with the Science blogosphere?

15:11 30/06/2007, Kyle Finchsigmate, sciency politics, The Chem Blog
vismap.jpgI [i.e. KF] was recently interviewed by Nature on the state of blogs and anonymity and whatnot and the interviewer had an interesting question: Why is the population of chemistry blogs so high relative to other disciplines?  There have been a number of posts on why chemistry is so absent in popular media – (IMHO, it lacks the “God element” present in biology/medicine and physics, especially astrophysics, which makes it less interesting to the masses.  The complexities and fuzzy logic employed by astrophysicists requires nothing less than a religiosity to believe some of the odd shit they sling out.)
Anyway, it’s disheartening that there are very few blogs about physics and biology compared to chemistry since the future is integrated approaches.  If I could, I would seek out a lively biologist to team up with on the Chem Blog, but I know of none.  It would be awesome to have a readable blog about either field, since I consider both of them too far off topic to be approachable.
Anyway, my response to the Nature interviewer (the interview should be available via pod cast next month) was that the chemistry blog-o-sphere had a number of very strong voices and drew a lot of inspiration to a lot of people.  Particularly catalytic in that was Dylan Stiles, Paul Bracher and Paul Docherty.  When asked if I was a strong voice, I arrogantly replied affirmatively, but that’s just my style and I was the subject of the interview in any case, so I had to have some degree of impact.  I know that I have made no secret that I started blogging because of Dylan’s post on Otera’s Catalyst, which he employed in his recent Org. Let. publication.  (I did not find it via Bengu Sezen [a researcher involved in ongoing controversy about the validity of published results – PMR], though I did exploit her to jump start my blog via trackbacks to Dylan’s, which is a wee shameful, but it worked.  Besides, if Blogging really had any superstar it was her.  It is, after all, the news that makes the reporter, not the other way around [though, with blogging, that argument can be contested].)
The walls are too high really to make a plea to people in other fields to start blogs, since I don’t think physicists or biologists frequent this blog, but if they WERE here, I would ask them to consider it.

[PMR: Question to Kyle – is the diagram the chemical blogosphere?]

PMR: I had exactly this experience when I was invited to talk to the Mathematical Knowledge Management group last week. I asked if anyone blogged – not really. There are maths blogs but I get the impression that they are mainly aimed at school, problems solving, etc. No-one was blogging the meeting (other than me! – look for the mkm2007 tag on That’s a pity as the talks were excellent – As a crystallographer I was fascinated to here Tom Hales’ work on proving Kepler’s conjecture (cubic/hexagonal close packing really are the densest ways of packing uniform spheres in 3D).
In chemistry the blogosphere gives up-to-the-minute  reports – in a large meeting it’s not impossible that people transfer sessions when they read the blogs (except that the ACS normally refuses to provide wireless even to speakers and you have to buy your own). I won’t speculate on why this is so, but I certainly felt more confident of starting a blog because Tenderbutton had shown the way. (It’s well know that his supervisor disapproved – “went ballistic” is what I heard from one senior chemist). Note, however, that in synthetic chemistry there are long periods of watching reactions “bubble away” and blogging can be a near-zero-cost multitasking activity.
There are many motivations for blogging – when I talk to young scientists I point out that several chemists are now on the first steps to science journalism having been scooped up by science publishers.  For myself the blog has several novel advantages.

  • I can post ideas in progress. That’s anathema in chemistry, though I see signs we are changing it.
  • It summarises my current position – especially where peer-reviewed publication may not be the best way. Difficult to publish technology in science journals.
  • It is a platform for advocacy
  • It reaches out to other disciplines (and I’ll say more about maths in later posts)
  • It acts as a record of my talks. In general I blog about what I am going to say at a meeting. This alerts people to the issues, and may also be a fallback if my machine breaks down. At WWW20007 I posted the summary of my ideas and many people in the audience had already read them or were following them as I went through the talk. This is especially useful where (as then) I only had 5-10 minutes – you can give details that you don’t have time to say physically. And, since my talks are stochastic, it reminds me if there is anything I have forgotten as I come to the end of the talk.

So I think my talk has catalysed at least a subset of the maths community to think about blogging. Michael Kohlhase‘s blog is an example and I’ll be talking more later about the collaboration we have set up between MathML/OpenMath and CML – this might be exciting news for science publishers and reporters. So perhaps one of the most important aspects of blogging – for me – is:

  • A way of reaching beyond the boundaries of my own domain. It’s obviously an effective approach in Open Data, etc. as I have had several people in the LIS (library-information sci) community tell me they were glad I had restarted my blog.  I think that Michael and I will make it work for chemistry and maths. He is intimately connected to the area of mathematical knowledge while I connect to the Blue Obelisk of chemical open source. Thus if we say “who would like to help with the management of geometrical algorithms in the BO repository it’s quite possible we’ll get someone from the maths community being interested. And when – as we hope – MathML and CML start to really interoperate we will have the basis of some of the formal knowledge architecture of the immediate future.

That couldn’t happen without the blogosphere. Blogging is an integral part of modern scientific knowledge. And the more enlightened scientific publishers know it. Unfortunately very few senior chemists do.

This entry was posted in "virtual communities", blueobelisk, mkm2007, open issues, www2007. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Blogging in science and mathematics

  1. Pingback: Blogging in science and mathematics -

  2. KF says:

    It is not an image of the chemical blogosphere. Sorry. It’s just the “blogosphere” in general.
    The truth about Dylan, by the way, was the Trost had nothing to do with it. As I understand it, there is some odd rumor going around (I learned of it from Dale Boger) that his adviser kicked him in the face or something. It’s untrue. Trost had no interest in his blog negatively or otherwise.

  3. pm286 says:

    (2) Thanks for the clarification on the diagram.
    And many thanks for correcting me. I publicly apologize to Prof Trost and it is a lesson not to repeat hearsay. At least on the blogosphere these stories surface rapidly and can be corrected rapidly. Which is another merit of the form.

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