A Thousand Points of Light

In Education by Brian Koberlein17 Comments

I’ve now written 1,000 science posts. More than half a million words on astronomy, astrophysics, and physics.

Over the past few years I’ve written on everything from the dawn of astronomy to the study of cosmic origins. I’ve written post series on the solar system, the foundations of physics, the quantum revolution, science in fiction, dark matter, Einstein’s research, the weak points of scientific models, and the fundamental forces of nature. I’ve done my best to explain some of the more subtle aspects of astrophysics, such as cosmic inflation, the big bang and black holes. I’ve tried to dispel some of the hype and push back against pseudoscience. I’ve made a few videos, and started a podcast.

While 1,000 is an arbitrary number, reaching that number of posts has me wondering where to go from here. When I started writing science posts, it was mostly about the textbook I was writing. It was a way to get out of the academic headspace after hours of writing. As I’ve continued to write over the years it’s become clear that there’s some interest in the work, and there’s clearly a need for as much clear science communication as we can get. That’s part of the reason why I’ve gradually put more emphasis on communicating science to the general public. If I’m going to keep doing this (and I plan to) then what efforts will have the greatest impact? Should I start making more videos? Give more public talks? Write longer blog posts?

My most popular posts so far have been ones that either debunk some crazy idea, or rant about always having to debunk ideas, and I certainly don’t want my blog to become an anti-fringe site. I’m not interested in increasing pageviews, but rather increasing understanding. That means I need to do more than satisfy long-term readers. It means broadening the appeal of science. It means making a serious effort to engage with folks about scientific habits of mind.

So I’m looking for ideas. How do we move beyond the circle of those who read about science for fun? How do we reach out to the doubters and the fearful in order to sow the seeds of understanding? How do we grow scientific understanding on a truly meaningful level?

With the first 1,000 down, it’s time to use the next 1,000 to change the world. Who’s with me?


  1. Thanks Brian! I like the way this site is done so much I have a hard time thinking how to improve it. Just keep it up! I think it’s growing and persistence is often the key to success, of course. Keep the variety up. Keep us guessing whats next. My only advice. The raw, dense facts presented here are a delight.

  2. I would love articles that talk about the more hands-down elements of science and astronomy. How does one uses a telescope? How does a spectroscope works? Does it has many buttons? How does one goes from dots of light in a photo or lines on a graph to say that you’ve just discovered an exoplanet? What does one does when it stops working? Do astronomers in remote locations have to study the sky while battling cold and wolves outside? I would personally enjoy interesting trivia like that.

  3. Hi, I have been reading you every day and enjoy it. I like the way you explain things. It helps me understand the science of astronomy. I would not change anything. As far as I am concerned you are doing it right. Keep up the good work.

  4. Definitely with you. i don’t know what your stats are like, but I personally prefer the writing to the podcasts. I would like to see posts in two stages: the first as you have been doing, and the second as an extension of the first but with more technical detail for those of us who have the time/patience to dig in.

  5. Once a month or so APOD hosts a picture completely or only very tenuously related to astronomy. It seems silly at first but their strategy is to draw people into astronomy by posting something else and then hoping the new people it pulls in stick around for the astronomy. I don’t know how that could possibly be applicable to your website, but this sort of thing has definitely worked for APOD. Apparently they have the data to back it up.

    1. I think you are already doing this with your podcasts, so I wanted to be a little more clear about what APOD does slightly differently. It’s not just a picture from a different subject but something the editor happened to think was especially incredible. Eg, lightning bolts on a volcano. You know what? Try posting about lightning bolts in volcanic plumes. I find you put a lot of work into this thing anyway and it feels very pointless to try to give you any advice!

  6. I enjoy your posts. It happens a lot that i read an article in the main stream and realize it is just clickbaite. Usually i read 5 lines. Then i wait till you dissect the same and eliminate the bait out of the click. It makes me happy to understand the core.

    But then again. I have that little devil on my shoulder. I doubt. A little devil that never seems to disturb you. You are always in the middle of de save zone. The zone where it seems safe to make a true statement. The zone where a reasonable gamble can be safely promoted to knowledge. The zone where the last and new step in the chain of logic (usually speculation) is supported by a whole world of earlier accepted knowledge.

    That is a nice thing. Really. It is comfortable to have a handle to pull the pot safely from the fire.

    But then again. If i read all the science about Pluto lately. By instance. If i see that we had its size by like 3% wrong. If i see that we had the orbits of the moons wrong. This for an object only a few light hours away. How can you be in a save zone for objects that are many many light years away in distance and time ?

    If you want a different direction in your writings, accept that this is only possible when there is a different direction in what you believe.

    I would love to see you take all that talent out of the save zone towards the fuzzy edges. Not to debunk, but to wonder and enjoy.

    Again, i am sorry to abuse your language, English.

  7. You can both lead casual readers to the scientific consensus and explain physics:

    By explaining hard topics in understandable terms to bring them just within the horizon of casual readers. Its dofficult but you can do it quite nicely usually.

    Those topics which attract a lot of fringe sciences include those which seemingly have a rather odd scientific consensus that is far from intuition. Such as dark stuff, invisible stuff, volatile stuff etc.

    By explaining how scientific consensus was reached in a neutral way, you lead people to understand themselves. I didnt like your electric univers post eg. Becausd it was not neutrally written. Your point of telling that it is strongly in conflict with observations should be conveyed as a conclusion the reader makes and not by telling that it is as is.

    Another important point would be to discuss why organizations like nasa or esa or cern decide on certain projects while others or not granted. So why do certain projects answer questions particularly well? That is also not obvious for outsiders and is a wonderfully easy way to involve readers in the process of ddesigning the scientific consensus.

    Such an effort might requiee slightly longer on average posts which would be cool.

  8. One Universe at a Time (excellent title!) has become one of my favorite sites, I’m pretty much a daily visitor.

    I prefer written articles rather than podcasts, mainly because of the time required to listen. I find the links within an article excellent as I often have to educate myself along the way and those links help with that. I also really like the series of posts that traverse a theme in more detail.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  9. In recent decades, we have just begun to realize that we do know what most of the universe is. With the discovery of dark matter and dark energy, there’s quite a lot of explaining to do. This is a good start.

    In some disciplines, we are seeing what appears to be an over-reliance on math models, and at times mis-application of statistics. How many papers have you read, where the investigators, ran a model, examined, the output, and then wrote a paper? It happens a lot, and a lot of it is junk.

    Then there are the false starts. “We discovered the Higgs Boson!” “We discovered gravitational waves” or “We measured the propagation speed of gravity!”

    Widely publicized papers have to be walked back later.

    Yes. There is a lot of explaining to do. Like I said. This is a good start.

  10. Andy Weir gave up on finding a broader audience. Instead, he wrote for the audience that he had, pandering to his and their desire for hard science. So if you want Matt Damon to do the movie version of your podcast…

    Write what you want to write. Make us keep up, if that’s what that means. Maybe approach that great barrier that separates the STEM people from the non-STEM people. How do I find the area under a curve and why would I want to? There’s that whole “language of science” deal that you have not yet touched upon.

    I think the podcast is great — the conversational feel, the curiosity driven discussions. And I always find myself enjoying the first half of the program more than I expected to.

    Should you do more videos? What kind of a question is that? Sure, you should do more videos. I certainly enjoy your participation in the Weekly Space Hangout. Video is the dominant medium. There is no audio equivalent of Youtube. Acquiring greater fluency in it may be a good use of your time. I’ve been watching Fraser Cain pump out all those “explainer” videos for the past few years. He’s been getting better at it. The writing has been getting better and so has the delivery. It has been interesting and instructive watching that occur.

    But if you just keep on keeping on the way you have been doing, I’ll be happy. Really, the constancy and quality of your blog posts is pretty awesome. You give good Internet, Dr. Koberlein.

  11. When I was a kid the word “geek” was most definitely a term of abuse. Now however, geek culture has made science and scientists decidedly cool. For example, the NASA New Horizons team were recently (rightly) rewarded with global acclaim for guiding their robotic spacecraft safely across the solar system.
    The future is always in the hands of the young. I believe that it’s more young intelligent, inquisitive people that Brian needs to try and attract. Many teenagers are interested in science, astronomy in particular. I’m not a young person (sadly) and so I can’t suggest how this can be achieved. I am certain however that the answer is not to have Dr Koberlein morph into “Dr K: Master-Astro-Blasta” where upon he starts rappin on da street wid a hip hop crew.
    While I would enjoy listening to an astrophysicist rap about active galactic nuclei or the nature of Dark Energy, todays youth are most likely inclined to wince painfully.
    So I suggest Brian, that in September you discuss the matter with your new intake of freshman students. I’d be interested to hear what they say.

  12. Consider providing a few links to other pertinent resources for “further study.”

  13. Communicating science to the general public in ways they can understand is a must and I like your efforts in these postings. However, it is, in my opinion, more difficult that actual study. By definition, you have to leave out more rigorous details for which only the science community would understand yet it is those very omissions that contain the ‘essence’ that one is trying to communicate. The term ‘Big Bang’ is a good example. Sir F. Hoyle used this phrase because he couldn’t think of a better term while talking on the radio. Dark Matter & Dark Energy are other example. The BB may not have been a violent explosion, as the public started to think of it as such, and many books now have to try and explain what the BB signifies. DM & DE we are told make up more of the ‘universe’ and it is difficult to explain that the terms DM and DE are ‘place holders’ for whatever may be/is discovered in the future.
    I have a science background but consider myself a layman but I take the time to seek explanations of topics I find difficult but perhaps others have neither the time or inclination to do this. The reality is Science IS difficult and that’s why we need special people to do it.
    Keep up the good work and I, for one, will recommend this site to those who wish to understand that bit more.

    1. I look forward to reading your posts and listening to the podcasts. I would not make any changes to the formula that you are using. Your work appeals both to persons with a scientific background and to those who do not. Both the posts and the podcasts address different needs. The posts allow for deeper understanding because of the helpful links inserted in the texts. The podcasts are exciting, informative and entertaining. Keep it up and a big thank you!

  14. Thank you Brian, I have learnt so much from you. I am Bill from Glasgow, Scotland, and you once reaffirmed that I was made from :Star Dust’, The most beautiful happening in the universe since the big bang, A Supernova. The elements from which I am made from, and everything else, today.

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