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ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Matthew Francis

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Every year I ask some of the attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences to tell me (and my readers) more about themselves, their careers, current projects and their views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. So now we continue with the participants of ScienceOnline2012. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Matthew Francis (blog, Twitter).

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself?

“]”]I’m a physicist, freelance science writer, former college professor, ex-planetarium director, and wearer of jaunty hats. (And yes, that’s part of my standard biography.) I hold a Ph.D. in physics and astronomy from Rutgers University, and my undergraduate degree is from Central College, a small liberal arts college in Iowa. While I majored in physics, my minors were in math and English.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

As you can tell from the “former” and “ex-” in the paragraph above, my career has followed an unpredictable trajectory. I fully expected to retire from teaching at a college, but when my university faced serious financial troubles, they decided to eliminate the physics department. However, I’ve always loved writing, so I decided to see if losing my job could be turned into an opportunity. In my last year of teaching, I began a blog, “Galileo’s Pendulum“, and in the last six months started writing a book. I am also contributing physics editor for “Double X Science“, a blog aimed at providing good science content for and about women.

“Galileo’s Pendulum” covers a variety of topics in physics, astronomy, and related fields, mostly for non-scientists. I try to mix some lessons about how science works in practice into my writing as much as possible, since it’s an area of common misconceptions. In particular, as a theoretical physicist, I try to emphasize the importance of evidence in all aspects of science, since it’s too commonly assumed that coming up with “theories” is a matter of sitting alone in a room and thinking hard. Real science is far messier and more glorious than that – and there’s romance even in the messiness.

A similar theme plays in my book-in-progress, which is tentatively titled Back Roads, Dark Skies: a Cosmological Journey. For this book, I am traveling to various observatories and labs across the United States where the real work of cosmology is done, meeting scientists and viewing the equipment they use. Cosmology is big science: many projects involve hundreds of researchers, and the ways they go about learning about the Universe are as important as their discoveries. After all, the most important question one can ask in science is, “How do we know?”

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

I still think of myself as an educator even now, though I’m no longer in the college classroom. I want to share the wonder of physics to those who think of it as something beyond them, or even something to fear. In this era when the very goals of education are being challenged (at least for the children of poor and working-class families), it seems more important than ever to stress the importance of science, not just in daily lives, but in our intellectual structure. Science can be a source of joy and wonder for everyone, whether they are scientists or not.

The Web and social networking allow me to connect with those who are truly interested in finding what I write. My audience isn’t huge, but it’s pretty diverse: I have people from Iran and clergy from Wisconsin, a few kids, and even a handful of professional physicists among my readers. I don’t think that would even be possible without the Web. Twitter is really my community, since I haven’t identified any other professional science writers in Richmond (yet at least). My best professional contacts in the last two years have come through Twitter, including the entire ScienceOnline community.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

I started reading Sean Carroll’s “Preposterous Universe” website many years ago, but the first science blog I followed in earnest was Phil Plait’s “Bad Astronomy”, thanks to his earlier website debunking the Moon landing conspiracy nonsense. (For those joining late: a small but vocal group of people deny we ever landed astronauts on the Moon, and have a long list of “evidence” to support this view. Even if you don’t believe the testimonies of the people involved in the projects, the evidence in favor of the Moon landings is really strong, and Plait has done a really good job collecting it and debunking the conspiracy theorists.) Through his site, I discovered Carl Zimmer’s “The Loom”, Ed Yong’s “Not Exactly Rocket Science”, Jennifer Ouellette’s “Cocktail Party Physics”, and Sean Carroll’s later blog, “Cosmic Variance”.

I hesitate to even begin listing the blogs and writers I learned about through ScienceOnline, since there are so many! Suffice to say nearly every science writer I follow on a regular basis is part of that community, and many of the others I learned about through my friends in the ScienceOnline extended family.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you? Any suggestions for next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

I loved the chance to meet my online friends in real life, and interact with them in a structured but still informal setting. A lot of the best professional connections were actually out of the sessions: talking with people about what they do, and how. The session that inspired me the most was the “Geometry and Music” session led by Deborah Blum and David Dobbs: using geometry (which I use extensively in research) and music (which I am obsessed with) to recognize shapes within narratives in your own stories.

My first ScienceOnline was 2012, and I had the privilege of leading a session, despite my newbie status. I hope to be leading at least one session in 2013 as well (hint, hint).

Thank you so much – hope to see you soon!

 






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