Popularity and Social Networks: Life is still like high school


I remember setting up the Multo blog a few years ago: my first blog explicitly meant for public consumption. On the “Follow” widget — the button that allows readers to follow a blog via email notifications — there is an option to show the count of the blog’s followers.

My first reaction: why would I want to do that?

It’s an insecurity reflex, of course, one left over from high school. I was never one of the popular or cool kids, though I was lucky enough not to be one of the pariahs, either. Like most of us, I flitted on the edges of the cool circle — the very outer edges, in my case — once in a while being noticed, mostly not. As my life, so will be my blog, my mind said. Why would I want to advertise my obscurity to the world?

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Goldbach’s Celestial Atlas

Christian Goldbach, Prussian mathematician. Probably most famous for the Goldbach conjecture, one of the oldest unsolved problems in mathematics:

Every even integer greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes.

The story goes that he scribbled this conjecture in the margin of a letter he wrote to Euler. In fact, he wrote two versions of the conjecture in that letter — one in the body, and one in the margin. The statement above, which is how we know the Goldbach conjecture today, actually came from a subsequent letter, in which he and Euler continued the original conversation.

But less known is the fact that Goldbach also dabbled — very briefly — in astronomy. In 1799 he published Neuester Himmels – Atlas zum Gebrauche für Schul und Akademischen Unterricht, nach Flamsteed … [et.al.], in einer neuen Manier, mit doppelten schwarzen Stern-Charten bearbeitet; durchgehends verbessert, und mit den neuesten astronomischen Entdeckungen vermehrt [The Newest Celestial Atlas for the use of School and Academic Education, according to Flamsteed …[et.al.], in a new Style, edited with double black Star-Charts; improved and expanded with the latest astronomical Discoveries].

NewImageThe constellation Leo, with figures
Thumbnail image from The Linda Hall Library

The atlas was printed with white stars on a black background in two pressings: the first pressing had the stars only, as you would see them in the night sky. On the second pressing, annotations and figures of the constellations were added, as seems to have been customary with star-charts of the time.

Neuster Himmels was Goldbach’s only astronomical publication. The Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering, & Technology in Kansas City, Missouri has plates from the first edition of the atlas viewable online. You can see the charts as fairly large images both with and without the figures.


Dragons of Probability

“No insults, please!” said Pugg. “For I am not your usual uncouth pirate, but refined and with a Ph.D. and therefore extremely high-strung.”

— from “The Sixth Sally, or how Trurl and Klapaucius Created a Demon of the Second Kind to Defeat the Pirate Pugg”
NewImageCover for the 1972 edition of Cyberiada, illustration by Daniel Mróz
Photo from 50watts.com

I learned about Stanislaw Lem as an undergrad at Berkeley, from undergraduate and graduate students in the Math department, where his books were quite popular. At the time, the Berkeley Math PhD program had a foreign language requirement (I don’t know if they still do). The idea was that enough cutting edge mathematics research was being published in French or Russian or Japanese language journals — and elsewhere — that a serious mathematician would want to access that work even before an English-language translation became available.

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On Writing Technical Articles for the Nonspecialist

WatchPhoto: John Mount

I came across a post from Emily Willingham the other day: “Is a PhD required for Good Science Writing?”. As a science writer with a science PhD, her answer is: is it not required, and it can often be an impediment. I saw a similar sentiment echoed once by Lee Gutkind, the founder and editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction. I don’t remember exactly what he wrote, but it was something to the effect that scientists are exactly the wrong people to produce literary, accessible writing about matters scientific.

I don’t agree with Gutkind’s point, but I can see where it comes from. Academic writing has a reputation for being deliberately obscure and prolix, jargonistic. Very few people read journal papers for fun (well, except me, but I’m weird). On the other hand, a science writer with a PhD has been trained for critical thinking, and should have a nose for bullpucky, even outside their field of expertise. This can come in handy when writing about medical research or controversial new scientific findings. Any scientist — any person — is going to hype up their work. It’s the writer’s job to see through that hype.

I’m not a science writer in the sense that Dr. Willingham is. I write statistics and data science articles (blog posts) for non-statisticians. Generally, the audience that I write for is professionally interested in the topic, but aren’t necessarily experts at it. And as a writer, many of my concerns are the same as those of a popular science writer.

I want to cut through the bullpucky. I want you, the reader, to come away understanding something you thought you didn’t — or even couldn’t — understand. I want you, the analyst or data science practitioner, to understand your tools well enough to innovate, not just use them blindly. And if I’m writing about one of my innovations, I want you to understand it well enough to possibly use it, not just be awed at my supposed brilliance.

I don’t do these things perfectly; but in the process of trying, and of reading other writers with similar objectives, I’ve figured out a few things.

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