A Little Larger Than The Entire Universe

“Last train to Toronto” by Jamie McCaffrey is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

So, I’ve decided to write a blog (of sorts).

In the past, I have alternately thought of writing a blog or starting a podcast. I truly enjoy both, but two things have previously stopped me. First, I was afraid that I would simply never have time to write updates of any depth or breadth or alternatively record anything new and noteworthy. The internet is replete with dead blogs and discarded podcasts. Second, I feared that even if I was able to generate new content with any regularity that I would very quickly run out of anything interesting to say.

I am still afraid of these possibilities. Time will tell. This is my first post and I want to pass along some thoughts in a stream of consciousness manner, but I don’t anticipate writing in this style regularly. I am also trying to come to grips with the idea that blogged ideas need not be perfect nor articulated in the same way as one finds in a peer-reviewed journal.

I want to share my thoughts and opinions on my world, which is mostly the world of academic physics. In my day job, I am a theoretical particle physicist. But, there is more to it than that. There are topics within and peripheral to my profession that I want to write about and share with a larger community so that I can become a better science communicator.

Generically, this is called science communication. This is what a community of people like me call the techniques and best practices involved with explaining our work to people like you, my readers. This is something I care about very deeply and I want to become an expert, which can only come through practice. Being a professor certainly helps, but also has certain drawbacks. It is true that the students in my classes are very diverse for college students and I have learned to communicate effectively with them, but they are still college students. Most of the world is not made up of people enrolled in college and I would like to learn how to communicate with a wider audience. It might surprise you to learn that even experts in their fields like to study science communication as the best way to learn how other scientists think about complicated topics, trying to learn how other scientists think in their own time.

Some people say that great teachers (communicators) are born, that it is not a skill that you can teach or learn, which I think is a little bit silly. I firmly believe that anything you can practice is something you can get better at, incrementally, until you are amongst the best. Certainly, there are limitations to this paradigm, but I don’t think science communication is among them. Like all topics, there are trends that come and go and established ideas that are rarely questioned. Right now, there is a great deal of interest in employing the techniques of storytelling as a model to become a great science communicator, as are the skills of improvisation — the kind you might learn to become a standup comedian or to become involved in sketch comedy. I like this trend, but have other ideas to share over time.

So, let’s begin with something far outside my field of expertise. “Why did you pick this name for your blog?”

I don’t remember when it happened exactly. When I was younger, there used to be many more large-box book stores than there are now where I liked to spend my Saturday afternoons. I’ve always loved books. New books. Old books. Rare books. Common books. The smell of books. I surround myself with books. One day, as I was walking out of a bookstore, I saw a book that caught my eye. “A Little Bit Larger Than The Entire Universe.”

This book was published in 2006, so I was probably a postdoc living in Florida at the time. It is a collection of poems by the Portugese poet Fernando Pessoa, whom I had never heard of at the time. The title came from a poem named, “I Got Off the Train” which Pessoa published under the pen name Alvaro De Campos in 1934. The book has a wonderful cover that resembled a watercolor in mostly greens, with a red sketch of a mustachioed man in a hat over the top. I thought to myself that this was a fantastic name for a book and I filed the name away in the back of my head. It must have really struck a chord with me, because it’s well over a decade later and when I decided to write a blog, I instantly thought of this as a name.

This wasn’t the only name I had kicked around. I am a lifelong fan of The Simpsons, and I thought the name “This things I believe” would be a fun name. I would write about what I thought and it would be a nice homage to a show that I spent a big part of my life watching. I also thought “You are here” would be a fun name. A little meta and self-referential, but also has a nice connection to the digital world and maps. Another possibility I thought of was, “So long and thanks for all the physics” which I think sounds less funny each time I say it (like the Be Sharps). Finally, I also considered “Through the universe darkly,” a nice literary reference as well as a little tip of the hat to dark matter and dark energy, two of the biggest research topics in theoretical physics today. More on my title soon.

I have been an avid reader of blogs over the years. As a very small aside, I want to chastise Google for discontinuing it’s Google Reader which was a great tool to follow many websites all at once via RSS. Once I learned to use it, it saved me a great deal of time each day reading blogs. I have to admit that it used to be quite easy to keep up with everything that was written by the usual science crowd. Not so much anymore and a good history of early blogging life would be as fun for me to read as an early history of Bulletin boards (BBS), my first experience of the internet.

I will share some of my favorites as this blog evolves, but I have had the good fortune of meeting some of my heroes, and it hasn’t been all bad. As I started to form my idea of a blog in my head, and mulled over possible topics and titles, I started to keep a list. I read a wonderful blog post on Sean Carroll’s Preposterous Universe blog (which was one of my early favorites and continues to inform and entertain). In this post Sean asks his readers to start blogging and asks people to suggest fun names. I like these kinds of things, which are pretty common now on Twitter.

The names I liked on that list

  • Critical Phenomena
  • But No Simpler
  • Smooth Tension
  • Primeval Atom
  • The Error Bar
  • Nonabelian Windmills
  • If and only if

Now that I have mentioned Twitter, I should say that some of the fun of blogs have passed on to Twitter. Maybe I will feel differently about it if I ever develop a huge following that asks things of me, but I enjoy it. I used to enjoy it even more when it was limited to 140 characters. People in the science communication community also get behind Twitter because it forces you to distill your message. Critics say it causes things to be over simplified. That can happen, but it needn’t. The idea to start to actively engage online was a long time in coming, and will be told another time.

Get some rest. We will begin shortly…

Dr. Bryan J. Field is a theoretical high-energy physicist and Associate Professor of Physics. Author, “A Theory of Everything” (MIT Press, Fall 2021)