Monday, December 10, 2012

Some Personal Benefits of Blogging and Twitter

As I wrote back in October, I'm relatively new to Twitter and blogging. To help show their benefits on a personal level, I'll look back at last week and describe how it was different because I'm active on Twitter and write a blog.

Here's one example. On Monday I was on Twitter and saw that Ben Lillie, who is director of The Story Collider and is a contributing editor to TED was visiting Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a Story Collider event. I replied to him on Twitter and pointed out he was just down the road from where I work, at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA), and he suggested meeting because he was interested in talking to someone who does publicity with NASA. We met the next day and had a good talk about publicity, TED, Story Collider and ScienceOnline2013, which we're both attending. If it had come out earlier, we would have surely talked about this letter sent from the TED people to the TEDx community, warning about bad science and pseudoscience and how to avoid them. It contains some excellent advice for science writers and science consumers in the general public.

Here's another way that my week was different because of Twitter and blogging. For background, in late November I wrote a blog post about a recent cosmology result, where I argued that insufficient credit had been given to previous work in both the science paper and in press releases. This previous work was mostly supernova work led by Adam Riess, from Johns Hopkins University and Space Telescope Science Institute.

Fig 1: Adam Riess visiting CfA.
I told a few professors at Harvard about the post and one of them sent a link to Adam, who was interested in the details, and agreed with them. It turned out that he was due to visit CfA last week for a colloquium, so I met with him last Thursday (see Fig 1) and we discussed the blog post and some of the challenges of doing publicity.

Fig 2: Adam Riess colloquium at CfA.
That afternoon he gave an excellent colloquium (Fig 2) where he discussed some of his current work aimed at improving estimates of the Hubble constant, the rate of expansion of the universe. He enjoyed being able to discuss his current research and move beyond descriptions of the work that led to his Nobel Prize. This is especially understandable for someone who's only 42 years old and has a lot of research time ahead of him.

Fig 3: Abraham (Avi) Loeb (standing) holding court during dinner at the Harvard Faculty Club.
As one of the CfA staff who met with Adam, I was invited to a dinner honoring him at the Harvard Faculty Club that night (Fig 3). I had never been there before and was imagining secret handshakes and hangers-on from outside CfA, but I was pleased to see it was a rather low-key affair, with nearly everyone at the dinner from CfA. I sat at a table with Harvard professor Daniel Eisenstein, who back in 2005 had led the use of a new technique for studying cosmic acceleration that may have played an important role in helping convince the Nobel committee that this astonishing effect in cosmology is real. Recently, Daniel generously answered my questions about theoretical aspects of dark energy, alleviating my concerns based on another professor's talk, that information in my first blog post was incorrect. I also sat with Doug Finkbeiner, another Harvard Professor, who pointed out that we follow each other on Twitter, sparking a short discussion about this form of social media.

I haven't worked on Chandra publicity with either Daniel or Doug, and our paths hadn't crossed very much at CfA. Also, I had never met Adam Riess before, though we had exchanged emails once or twice. So, not only was I able to enjoy a dinner that I likely wouldn't have been attending if it wasn't for my blog, but I had stronger connections with some of the people there because of Twitter and my blog.

One other benefit is I got a free dinner!

Colleague's Reactions to Blogging and Twitter

It's been interesting to observe reactions to blogging and Twitter from academic colleagues. Several years ago I attended a talk at CfA by a visiting scientist who discussed their blogging. After the talk I overheard one of the CfA scientists make a pointed remark about wanting to check the publication record of the visiting scientist/blogger to see if they were still publishing papers. This reaction didn't surprise me, with the intense focus that academics have on publication and their occasional lack of respect for communication.

At the time I had mixed feelings about blogging. This was before "arseniclife" and other striking demonstrations of blog power. I'm now a convert and it's refreshing to see positive reactions to the handful of blog articles that I've written. Adam Riess clearly understands that one of my goals is to give some insight into how science really works, beyond the limited view presented in the traditional press, and I think his viewpoint isn't unique.

Many of the academics I know also recognize the potential of Twitter for science communication. Pepi Fabbiano, a senior astrophysicist at CfA, who attended dinner last Thursday said "you have to be on Twitter" when I mentioned I was using it. But, she was referring to my job in doing publicity for Chandra and not to herself. So, one personal goal might be to encourage people like Pepi, and other scientists I know, to explore Twitter and blogging for themselves. This blog post shows just some of the potential benefits.