Sharing science in virtual world

Blogger encourages community to connect with each other online

February 01, 2007|By Kristin Collins | Kristin Collins,McClatchy-Tribune

RALEIGH, N.C. — RALEIGH, N.C.-- --Offline, Bora Zivkovic is an unemployed biologist struggling with his dissertation in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Online, he is a respected authority on sleep, a published author and, at least in some circles, an international celebrity.

Zivkovic is the voice behind A Blog Around the Clock (scienceblogs.com/clock), a Web site about his research on circadian rhythms, as well as his views on politics and religion and other random topics, that draws thousands of readers every week.

Last month, Zivkovic tried to wake other scientists to the possibilities of blogging.

More than 150 scientists, teachers, bloggers and journalists came to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill to talk about the technology that some think has the potential to reshape the world of science and bring it to the masses. Zivkovic and Durham, N.C., blogger Anton Zuiker (mistersugar .com) organized the N.C. Science Blogging Convention.

"People hear the word `blog,' and they think `what I had for breakfast' or `adolescent angst with bad grammar on MySpace,'" Zivkovic told the crowd.

Participants spent the rest of the day imagining something very different: a virtual world where scientists collaborate and the public is engaged in recent discoveries.

The movement many imagine goes far beyond explaining basic concepts of science. They hope to create excitement about scientific discovery that will generate support for new research -- or at least help people interested in science feel less isolated at cocktail parties.

Hunt Willard, director of Duke University's Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy, said that exciting people about science isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. It depends on how the message is presented.

Scientists can talk about extracting and sequencing part of the DNA of a Neanderthal. But more people might be interested if they talked about the implications: When the entire Neanderthal genome is mapped, it could be possible to clone one, Willard said.

"Can you believe no one's going to want to re-create a Neanderthal?" he told the crowd. "Were they really idiots, or were they like the Geico commercials?"

Speakers said blogs have the power to publish scientific results that don't make it into the major journals but are worthy of better than the scrap bin. Even failed experiments should be recorded, some said, so other researchers don't have to repeat mistakes.

Zivkovic has made a full-time job of posting to his Web site several times a day. He publishes the results of studies, along with treatises on such subjects as adolescent sleep and the biological clock. In the past month, he put together a book that compiles the best posts from 50 science blogs, which he sells through his Web site. He describes the work as a personal addiction.

But he also sees larger implications.

He envisions a world in which the hierarchy of science disappears and researchers are recognized for the quality of their work rather than their titles. He also imagines scientists in Third World countries gaining access to information, and a community of supporters, that could propel them to success.

Blogging, he said, could allow important scientific discovery to happen everywhere, rather than solely in the well-funded labs of the richest countries.

Many in the room did not need to be convinced of blogging's power. They were bloggers who write on a variety of topics: evolutionary theory, wetland plants, space exploration, ivory-billed woodpeckers.

Eva Amsen traveled from Ontario, Canada, to attend the meeting. She said her blog, eastern blot.net, started as a diversion from constant lab work, a way to write about how science intersects with art and everyday life. "It has nothing to do with my work, so that made me scared that it would seem silly," Amsen said.

But it has gradually evolved into a tool for shaping her future. Now she dreams of being a science writer and hopes her blog will get her there.

If nothing else, blogging makes scientists happier, said Janet Stemwedel, a chemist and philosophy professor from California. Scientists often feel isolated by the esoteric nature of their work, and the Internet has given them a community -- one that is open to the lowly lab assistant as well as the tenured professor.

Stemwedel writes on her blog, Adventures in Ethics and Science (scienceblogs.com/ethicsand science), about subjects as varied as animal testing, protecting intellectual property and cooking for her children. She says blogs have brought her a new group of friends. The friendships may be virtual, she said, but they feel very real.

"These are people that you would really spill some blood for if you needed to," Stemwedel said.

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