When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, he saw it as a collaborative workspace for his fellow scientists at CERN, the European particle-physics lab near Geneva, and beyond. His creation went on to surpass his prediction that "the usefulness of the scheme would in turn encourage its increased use". But in the rush to develop the web as a flexible way to find information, the original concept of users interacting in real time was largely forgotten. Fifteen years later, the web seems to be returning to its roots. . . .
Outside academia, blogs are taking off in a big way. A study published in October by the Guidewire Group, a research firm in new media, says that 90% of marketing communication companies have either launched, or intend to launch, internal blogs. There are now some 20 million blogs, permeating almost every sector of society. But science is a glaring exception, and today there are still only a few dozen scientific bloggers.
Scientists who blog see their activities as a useful adjunct to formal journals, not a replacement. "The standard scientific paper is irreplaceable as a fixed, archivable document that defines a checkpoint in a body of work, but it's static, it's very limited," says Paul Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, who blogs at Pharyngula.
"Put a description of your paper on a weblog, though, and something very different happens," says Myers. "People who are very far afield from your usual circle start thinking about the subject. They bring up interesting perspectives." By sharing ideas online, you get feedback and new research ideas, he says.
A senior US epidemiologist who blogs once or twice a day under the pseudonym 'Revere' on his public-health blog Effect Measure, has attracted a diverse readership. "About 1,500 people visit each day," he says. "If someone told me that I could show up at a lecture hall every day and deliver a short opinion, and that 1,500 people would show up to hear me, I'd be pretty satisfied — 1,500 is twice the subscription of many specialty journals."
But for most scientists and academics, blogs and wikis remain unattractive distractions from their real work. Many consider them an online version of coffee-room chatter, background noise that goes against the very ethos of heavily filtered scholarly information.
On the subject of science blogging, here's what I want for Christmas: I want Wolfram Research to arrive at an arrangement with SixApart to have some version of WebMathematica run inside blogging software. I've told both companies. I have no idea if anything will come of this Christmas wish. But I think the possibility of having the math out there in a hands-on kind of way would give a big boost to scientific blogging.
As "merciless" explains in the comment section of Effect Measure,
One reason the scientific, mathematical, and engineering community has yet to embrace the internet is because it is still very difficult to type and disseminate math and scientific notation. Most people just have a querty keyboard and one or two scientific typesetting programs, which may nor may not translate well onto another person's computer.
The best solution right now is to convert everything into a pdf file, which is fine for reading, but cannot be manipulated (so it's like reading a book anyway).
New technologies are being created right now that will allow for real-time, editable mathematical and scientific dialogue. Once that gets out (that is, once publishers or somebody decides it's worthwhile to buy it and distribute it), then the internet can be a new and powerful force for worldwide scientific communication.
UPDATE: Last night I happened across an ISP, HostSRV.com, that specializes in hosting webMathematica sites. I am trying to work out the details of how their services can be integrated with my Typepad account.