Monday, July 29, 2013

Two years in The Trenches...

This Saturday (the 3rd of August) will be The Trenches of Discovery's 2nd birthday.

Ideally I should be writing a post on Saturday to celebrate this but for two reasons I've decided this year not to. The first is that this weekend I have some friends, one of whom is James, coincidentally enough, visiting me in Helsinki and so I probably won't have time to write anything. The second reason, is that I'm being sneaky/lazy. According to the schedule James and I have set each other I was meant to write a post last week and so far I haven't. The post I'd intended to write, on a paper I wrote recently with a PhD student here in Helsinki, is going to be a post where the line between "too technical" vs "not actually telling the truth" is incredibly fine (if not just completely non-existent).

So, partially to get something written for my scheduled post and partially because I really want to know, I'm going to canvass our audience's opinion (again).

Our initial aim, when we set up this blog, was to write about fundamental research, as it is happening, to an audience of the general public. This is obviously a very difficult task. The general public has no obligation to be interested in fundamental research, so in order to get you interested, we need to tell you the interesting stuff. The problem is that "the most interesting stuff" is not always the simplest stuff. We can really, really simplify things so that it all sounds understandable but if we do that, it is highly likely we will actually be telling you untruths (because it really isn't that simple) and also leaving out some of the coolest stuff (because the coolest stuff can be complicated at times). Alternatively, we can really get down in the trenches and fill in all the details, but then you need to also invest time trying to process what we write.

So, here are some questions for you, the reader:

  • Who are you?

That is, what's your background? Sometimes I fear that all our readers are just cosmologists, reading my posts, and biochemists reading James' posts. Most of my feedback definitely comes from other cosmologists, and while it's nice to hear from them that they read the blog and find it interesting, and I hope they continue to read it, it's also kind of annoying, because they aren't meant to be the target audience. I can't help but think that if I was writing posts that appealed to the target audience, cosmologists would tell me that my posts were a little boring. I love reading James' posts, they make me want to quit research and start a career writing allegorical novels about the human immune system, but I do have to sit down and read them carefully in order to get something out of them.

  • How did you discover the blog?

We can see from the stats what the various major sources of traffic to the blog are (google, facebook, reddit, other blogs, etc); however what we can't see is what types of readers these sources are bringing. Is google only bringing other cosmologists who will search for "mukhanov inflation planck" and biochemists who will type "central dogma of molecular biology" or do some of the people who type "cheats for jigsaw puzzles" actually end up sticking around?

  • Are we achieving our goal?

Are our posts too technical? Is a blog the right medium to use in order to achieve the goal of making fundamental research more understandable to the general public, or are YouTube channels such as Veritasium, Periodic Videos, etc, a much more effective method? We've been toying with the idea of starting a podcast, because it would allow one (or two) of us to sort of interview the other(s) and would really help with the interdisciplinary ambitions of Trenches. It wouldn't replace the blog, but it might free the blog up to be a little bit more technical without fear of alienating the target audience.

Is there a different niche, that I would imagine we're actually filling quite well, which is a niche for people who were already really interested in the stuff we write about and who probably even have science degrees, but might not be involved in research any more and don't have the time to sift through the primary literature and who really like having us digest this stuff in advance? You guys are also somewhat the target audience. If you exist and are reading the blog and liking it, let us know. If we changed to be less technical, would you be disappointed? If you came for the cosmology, do you read and enjoy the biochemistry? If you came for the biochemistry, do you read and enjoy the cosmology?

I would be interested in any opinions that any readers might have.

Finally, we've also been pretty keen right from the start to add a social science-ish-type-person to the blog to (sort of) allow it to cover the entire spectrum (physical science, life science, social science and arts). If you are such a person, or know of one, please get in touch with us. Those who are new to the blog might not be aware of the mysterious third blogger, Michelle, who is currently on sabbatical as she finishes thesis (at least, we hope it is only a sabbatical), who is also a critic, creator and now curator of art.

That's all from me. No competition to guess the most viewed post this year. It's the same one as last year.


  1. Hi there (and Happy Birthday,)
    I go by masodo and I maintain It is a personal project that strives to "collect up" interesting tidbits from the fringes of the internet. I explore many avenues of the World Wide Web in search of interesting content so that I might share these obscure findings with a smattering of followers and also to serve as a record of my "cyber adventures." A collection of my favorites if you will, done-up in Geeklog style. I do this all for exercise and to claim my own little cove on this vast sea of information.

    I discovered Trenches of Discovery during a stroll through the Technorati blog listings. Since my exploration must occur off the beaten path I make it a policy to only visit listed blogs that share the same "Authority Rating" as my own web site. (For those unfamiliar with Technorati - suffice it to say - it is a blog rating/listing service that itself seems to be more gimmick than science but is fun for many bloggers to tinker with.) As it just so happened, at one point in our ratings "roller-coaster ride" our paths crossed and in the spirit of exploration I paid a visit to this website. I was struck with your mission statement and the quality of your writing and decided this was a site to keep an eye on. In fact I was so taken with the site that I added "Trenches" to my sites "In The Spotlight" feature wherein I share what I determine to be my greatest discoveries from my Technorati excursions.

    I think an honest assessment of your site would indicate that you could be said to be falling short of your goals. I don't mean that the site lacks value; on the contrary, every article I have come across is of the highest quality and conveys the expertise of its author. It is clear that this place is an all volunteer project and perhaps more of a diversion than a serious attempt at journalism. For me this is the ideal situation for a blog purporting to be "in the trenches." To me this translates into information being exchanged when your creative staff is individually motivated to share with the community. Whether this sharing comes in the form of an alert, news item, eureka moment or simply an observation, one can always be certain that it will be worth the read.

    As a blogger myself and only marginally involved with the sciences and casually involved in the arts I have to say I rate this effort as a golden nugget in the gravel pit that is the "blogosphere." I try to follow my favorite blogs on a regular basis but I have gotten to know so many really fine contributors to the public discourse that it becomes a chore sometimes to "make the rounds." I find that the first sites to be pruned from my "must visit" agenda are usually those that seem to feel a need to publish for the sake of publishing. I don't have to follow these blogs for very long before questioning their worth. I would encourage Trenches to never lose sight of its vision and sincerely encourage you to keep up the good work.

    Finally it is my opinion that you should be as technically precise as you feel the need to be. This will only serve to show me the limits of my own understanding and intellect. However, only if your writers are willing to answer questions and/or provide "get up to speed" links, will I value their contributions. That is in my view the beauty of the blog format. The exchange is dynamic. If you ask for a reply - (who knows?) - you might just get one.

    1. Hi masodo, thanks again for the feedback and interaction. I'm really grateful that you ask questions and give feedback, etc.

      I'm glad that you like the content/level of the blog. I completely agree with you that it is better to be slightly too technical but then be willing to interact in the comments should someone wish to have more information. The reason why I might not think that is optimal is that it doesn't attract new people to the blog itself because they see the more technical stuff and don't get excited by it like they would something more showy. However, the people who are already interested definitely gain more from the blog if our posts are more honest an thus more technical and it seems that people such as yourself and the others who've given feedback (in comments or email) do value the level we blog at.

      Of course it isn't too surprising that the people who are reading the blog two years after we started it will think the content is at the right level because they're the people who are still here reading it, they must, almost by definition, find it interesting!

      Regarding the issue of whether we should stick to a schedule or not. I do take your point about the risk, if you do keep to a schedule, that you force yourself to write some filler that isn't very interesting. However, alternatively, I know that if we didn't have a schedule my post count would immediately and dramatically drop. I like uploading the post and knowing that it exists and can be read, but I find the writing of it excruciating at times. If I didn't have a deadline/schedule I would always put it off. As it happens, I have a list of many ideas for posts so I'm not going to run out of topics I find interesting for a long time... the schedule just makes sure I do get around to writing the posts. We also give ourselves complete freedom to upload stuff outside the schedule, should we be so motivated.

      Anyway, thanks again for the feedback (both here and in other posts). Let us know if you feel we're straying from what got you interested in the first place and keep asking questions when you want something clarified.

  2. Hi there,
    to tell you do truth Shaun, I found this blog through you. I think it was a couple of years ago, when I was still in Facebook. I've been now reading it a couple of times, and enjoying your writing. That actually is my main reason, you're a good writer. Subject is good too. I have read, I think, two of the biochemistry entries and liked them too.
    You're thinking about podcasts. YouTube works just fine, so does, surprisingly, Google+. I've been in Google+ this summer and followed several Hangouts. Hangouts are live streaming during which followers can comment. You might also want to get into the Science on Google community People do share a lot in it which is a bit of a problem (I haven't joined). But the good thing about Science in Google is that they have a list (circle) of scientist who publish in their community. You can check the list, if you're not already in it, in
    There's a lot going on in Google. I follow ESA, CERN, NASA... and as I said, been to several of their Hangouts. Of course I also follow the Royal Shakespeare Company and they had a great project this June, with the Midsummer Night's Dreaming Community (#dream40), with several Hangouts. We shared a lot with them, I mean fictional characters... sorry.
    I hope that helped. And I've got a BSc in physics, doing my Master's now (I finally decided to do it in experimental particle physics).
    Outi Pöyry.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Outi. You should read more of the biochemistry posts, I really like them. Sometimes I find myself wanting to go and study biochemistry after reading James' latest post.

      We probably should involve ourselves in google/googl+ a bit more. We have a google+ page, but we don't do much at it beyond me uploading links to our posts here. I do see though that some other blogs/scientists have quite significant followings there. Also, you're right that doing hangouts might be a good idea. They'd certainly be easier to start with than podcasts, although they also have that slightly more amateur feel to them because you don't get to make any edits (which has its pluses too of course).

      Thanks again!

  3. Hi, and (belated) happy birthday to the Trenches Blog. I was planning to leave a comment for a while but somehow forgot to do it.

    Who am I ? - well, an ex colleague of yours on the right side of the pool. I've been following this blog as much as I could since its birth. Overall you're doing a great job, more details below.

    How did I discover the blog? - obvious answer here..

    Are we achieving our goal? Posts too technical ? - well , I think sometimes for a reader such as myself they can be a bit too technical - like the one reporting about the SUPER EXCITING INCREDIBLE UNBELIEVABLE ONCE IN A LIFETIME thing happening at the Plank Telescope observation etc.. (although I could understand that is something big and important, i was lost some way through the long multiple posts..) I agree though that some posts (that one in particular) is not addressed to the layman but like you said...maybe to people who want to keep up with academic research as it happens while no longer working in academia.

    Others were quite cool and to tell you the truth have opened my appetite for science and cosmology / amateurish theoretical physics. Thanks to (posts in) this blog I now follow the likes of @cosmicvariance on twitter or a couple of other popular science bloggers. - I know, it's funny how instead of staying faithful to your blog i got drawn into other people's postings :)

    In terms of requests : can we do some philosophy or philosophy of science as well, such as things having to do with arrow of time, anthropic principle, etc ?

    Podcasts would be a great idea.

    Keep up the good work !

    1. Thanks for the feedback "Sexu". It's really good to read that this blog turned you on to other blogs. That's a pretty clear example of us satisfying our goals.

      If you do ever find posts too technical, but are still curious about them, please feel completely free to ask whatever questions you want in the comments (anonymously if you want).

      Hmm, regarding the request... Just like almost every other physicist I am highly opinionated about issues relating to philosophy and philosophy of science; however unlike many physicists I also understand that I'm far from an expert on such matters. Therefore I'm a bit shy about voicing my opinion from my blog soap-box (especially without an expert to critique it and call me out if I write nonsense). However, certainly some aspects of physics inevitably overlap with some aspects of philosophy so I can give it a go, from time to time. And certainly things like the arrow of time and anthropic principle are completely within physics' scope.

      Thanks again.

  4. Hi there guys, I’m Zak and I got to know Trenches while researching multiverse theories and came across ESA and the Planck project. I posted a question for the symposium and got a twitter response from Jason McEwen. I found this blog through him.

    I subscribe to many blogs but don’t always get the opportunity to read everything. Your blog is one of the very few I do make time to read as there is always something relevant to me and my research.

    You are trying to reach the general public - well here I am! I worked as a graphic designer for 20 years. Science and science fiction has been an interest for most of my life. Now I’m writing my own fiction and use various resources for research including Trenches. The internet is, indeed, a minefield and it’s easy to get lost in information. I find your blog keeps things simple and to the point which is exactly what I’m looking for. BTW I am VERY interested in fundamental research and enjoy investing time in processing the information I find.

    I find it enormously helpful that you digest information beforehand and give me the good bits! I’m really interested in cosmology and astrobiology (all things universe) but the biochemistry stuff is interesting too. With my novel I hope to encompass both areas as it will deal with life in the universe as one of the main themes.

    I’m fascinated but all the seminars around these subjects always seem to be in London and I find it difficult to work these events and travel into my schedule. I would love to be part of a cosmological community but I have never responded to any of your posts because, as a member of the general public, I find it intimidating - I am not a clever big brained boff :) I your target audience?

    I would love to know more but maths has never been a strong point. I’m good a visualising theory - I’m utter tat at understanding equations. I don’t find your posts too technical but I would read you more than watch you - I find it easier to retain written information, but that’s just me.

    I hope that helps - apologies for the tardy response.



    Ps. There’s a cheat for jigsaw puzzles?! ;)

    1. Hi Zak, thank you so much for this comment. You asked whether you are our target audience. I honestly don't think it is possible to describe a person who is *more* the target audience we've decided to aim for in 2014 and onwards (the same is true for the others who've replied above). It's great to know you're enjoying the blog.

      Please do write comments though. To field questions from people like yourself are the reason we're here. The thing is, when I write an article, I'm certainly going to skip over a bunch of stuff that I have forgotten isn't generally known. You can of course look this stuff up yourself, and you should, but you can and should also ask for clarification (I might be able to save you time and point you in the correct internet direction more quickly). Don't worry about asking stupid questions either, if the question is sincere, then I don't care how naive it sounds (ask it anonymously if you must), I want to be able to help.

      Ah, yes, I wrote this post once, which was about a museum that used a mathematical algorithm to help them find what pieces of a broken fresco went where. You'd be surprised how often people ask google how to cheat on jigsaw puzzles, and get directed to that post (presumably disappointingly).