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The Sciences

The Blog as a Sharp Tool for Research

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Please let me share with you an idea I had a while ago. It emerged in a conversation with John Ellis when I was visiting at CERN giving some string theory training lectures. I was commenting about how great the QuantumDiaries experiment is, having a wide variety of physicists blogging from around the world for the World Year of Physics. You will recall my mentioning about being reluctant to get involved with blogging, and I may have mentioned there that I did not want to reproduce already good effort out there, and so began to think of new ways to contribute using the medium. Well, as you read, I found some reasons to give it a try and here I am. Well, a number of things did come up as interesting and fun to try, and the following is one of them. I've already said on this blog that our particular field (string theory and related topics) could do with more ways of having discussion, both general and specific. We have already accelerated the primary way in which we exchange research results (revolutionizing scientific publishing in the process) by establishing the Archive (see writing about this by Paul Ginsparg), and it undeniably helped drive the field's rapid developments in the middle 90s while also democratising it by enabling serious papers from the traditional large and famous institutions to be seen on everybody's computer screen right alongside the serious papers from smaller less well known institutions, often within minutes or hours of the completion of the work. Imagine if we could do the same with discussions. How might a blog help? Well, of course, we could just have a blog (like this one) with lots of topics up from time to time and people come in and make comments and throw around ideas. This is great, and valuable, respectful and balanced discussion (e.g. here and here) has already been happening here at Cosmicvariance on general and technical aspects of string theory and long may it continue. But I think that it can be better. Way better. The model is as follows: If you are an individual researcher or group at an institution somewhere, that wants to be a full participant in the process, you register with the System. The System then randomly picks a schedule which determines which group (from wherever in the world they are from) gets to be the hosts of the blog. As hosts, they choose the topics of discussion (perhaps some of the topics they are working on in that group) and put up posts on these matters. Everybody else reads and makes comments as usual on several threads, just as on any busy blog. Discussion happens. After the predetermined period ends, it is the turn of the next randomly chosen group to take the baton, choosing their topics of interest, and sparking off the topics for discussion. This just keeps cycling on and on. Full participants get to contribute and host, while others can simply lurk and listen, or listen and post comment. Advantages? 1) Ideas are thrown around, both good and bad, general and technical. Nuggets of value are panned out of the mud and incorporated into research in the usual manner. 2) Senior people as well as junior get to contribute, and learn from each other. 3) Smaller groups or individuals at more isolated institutions get to have regular conversations with the entire field. Everybody benefits. 4) By changing the host every so often, everyone gets a chance to participate and to change the perspective and the agenda. 5) No one group, no matter how big or powerful, gets to dominate the scene. 6) There will be a permanent archive of these discussions which will be fully searchable. It can be mined for information at later times. 7) Flexibility: It is up to the group how they choose to participate. Just one person from the group can run the show, or it could be a group blog from that whole research group. Disadvantages? 1) Someone has to design the system, but there are so many clever people to write some software to implement the System and there are excellent standard blogging resources for making it easier. Once set up, it will run itself with minimal effort. I bet there are several such clever people out there who could collaborate on setting it up. 2) Lots of random comment might come from people not working in the field that could be distracting. I'm not really convinced that this is a problem, but I'm sure that it will be mentioned as one. Easy solution is to have three levels of participation. The basic level is that everyone can see it and search on it as a resource. Next level is that you are a registered contributor that can comment. Next is that you are a group or individual that can be chosen by the system (with ample warning of course!) to be a host for a period. 3) Too much talk not enough equations? Not convinced this is a problem either. It is trivially easy to post up equations as images, raw TeX, or whatever, and also I think that people like Jacques Distler have been playing with other equation plugins for serious research use. 4) Can't think of any more downers. What are we waiting for?! I think this could work for several fields of endeavour where exchange of ideas is a key component. It is very well-suited to theoretical physics indeed. It will not and should not replace blogs like this (which have discussions of all types on all sorts of subjects, scientific or not), and will not replace all the other more "traditional" modes of discussion that already happen. It will enhance them. I'd really like to hear people's thoughts about this. For example: 1) Maybe it has been tried before by someone else? If so, point it out and we can learn from their experience. 2) Maybe it has been thought about before and not implemented for some reason I've missed? 3) Would you take part in something like that? Or not at all? What are your reasons? Please share your thoughts (and ask others to come here and share theirs too), and let's see if it's worth taking further. Maybe even if we talk about it but don't do it, the model might be useful to others. -cvj

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