Why blog? The Meme returns...

Not Exactly Rocket ScienceBy Ed YongNov 28, 2008 3:32 PM


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For some reason, I've only just discovered the navel-gazing blogger meme that started at Nature Network a few weeks ago. But I've written up a shed-load of science this week and I'm feeling lazy and introspective. So better late than never...

1. What is your blog about?

Not Exactly Rocket Science is a news site crossed with a popular science book crossed with an excitable, precocious and eloquent child jumping up and down and pointing at things that are cool. I care about making science understandable and interesting to non-scientists and about good writing. Any topic is fair game, but a general rule of needing to understand the primary paper of whatever I'm writing about means that I'm essentially limited to biological matters. That, of course, covers a multitude of sins. Want frogs with retractable claws? Thumb evolution? Brain-enhancing drugs, cellular fat-o-stats or missing-link flatfish? They all live here.

2. What will you never write about?

DANGER! Danger Will Robinson! Probability of looking like an idiot in the future: high! Avert! Avert! Ahem. You'll notice that this blog is about new research. I adhere to some simple but strict rules - the type that you wish science journalists would adhere to so the world would be happier and shinier and smell of cake. Only write stories from primary papers and not press releases and other secondary sources. Only write about things I actually understand. That sort of thing.

I try to offer only original content and a high signal-to-noise ratio. The vast majority of posts are substantive articles that I write myself.

And I prefer to talk talking about science than attacking anti-science. Many people already do that very well and I appreciate the need for that approach in order to defend ourselves from nonsciencical rubbish. But I don't personally believe that bashing creationists or homeopathists is going to inspire people to take an interest in science in the first place. The things that have done that for me are popular science books, wildlife documentaries, good teaching etc, things all united by the common theme of making science seem less complicated and more beautiful. That's the approach I fancy.

3. Have you ever considered leaving science?

If you mean "leaving science" as "leaving research", then I already have and I did it with a smile on my face and a song in my heart (a parody version of My Way, since you ask). I spent two years as a grad student in a molecular biology lab and nothing about it or I were suited to each other. People still probably speak of it in hushed, terrified whispers.

But if you mean "leaving science" as "no longer taking an interest in it or being involved with it in some way", then no, no I haven't. You might as well ask, "Have you considered not having knees?" I've said this elsewhere, but there are many productive ways of contributing to science without getting your hands dirty on some research.

4. What would you do instead?

Be an idiot? Scratch myself? Haven't I already covered this? Don't make me come over there...

5. What do you think science blogging will be like in 5 years?

Not fundamentally different in form to what it currently is. Technological advancements are all well and good, but nothing will change the fact that people will only read what other people write if they have something interesting to say and can say it well. Or if they put captions on cats.

I do think that more people will start cottoning on to both how easy blogging is and how valuable it can be. My big dream is for more science bloggers and more people who rely on science blogs as a source of news over traditional media. I'd also love to see more scientists visiting posts written about their work and responding to commenters directly, showing people that they don't work in the ivory towers of cliché (dingy, basement labs, surely?).

6. What is the most extraordinary thing that happened to you because of blogging?

The blog's played a part in a multitude of small victories rather than any single epic win. As a result, I've published a book, been offered freelance writing work, been invited to join ScienceBlogs, gained the attention of lots of bloggers whom I respect, and received lots of nice emails from scientists who've been particularly appreciative of the way I've covered their work.

But to pick a single thing, the Editor-in-Chief of Nature once told David Attenborough that he should read my blog. That's a little slice of concentrated awesome right there.

7. Did you write a blog post or comment you later regretted?

Sort of. I have written posts about studies which seemed reasonable to me at the time and were later completely slated. I never felt that I represented the research badly, but it's a bit galling to learn that that same research was transparently rubbish to everyone else, while I was busy nodding like an impressed bobble-head doll. But then (cue soaring music), I've learned from those experiences and hopefully become better at spotting nonsense. The whole experience is like a massive online journal club where everyone is inexplicably indignant and verbose.

And, really, never again with the evolutionary psychology.

8. When did you first learn about science blogging?

T'was foretold in prophecy? I honestly can't remember. I think I started writing a blog before reading them. The basic idea was borne out of frustration at not being able to break into mainstream science writing and a desire to write in a more natural, stylised way than my day-job would allow.

9. What do your colleagues at work say about your blogging?

They're either very supportive or totally indifferent. I don't cover cancer in Not Exactly Rocket Science for the specific intent of not creating a conflict of interest. And besides, I blog at work too, in a slightly different way. That's an interesting challenge - how do you do a corporate blog with all the restrictions and sensitivities that entails, while still creating something engaging? Find out here.

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