Field of Science

Accretionary Wedge No.26 post : A shorter history about the Geo(blogo)sphere

The July 2010 Accretionary Wedge (No.26) is dedicated to the Geoblogosphere, focusing of its possibility to educate and promote geosciences. The incoming posts (but there is still time) show an extraordinary diversity and interpretation of the topic itself and offer a lot to discuss on.
I tried to approach the topic from a short historic viewpoint, how changed news r
elease, discussion and education on geosciences trough time?

"The Canterbury munch's faithfully recorded an impact on the moon and the Anasazi people an explosion of a distant star. They saw for us, as we see for them. We see further then they, only because we stand on their shoulders. We build on what they knew; we depend on free enquiry and free access to knowledge."
Carl Sagan in "COSMOS" Episode 13

In the 18th century science was strongly organized in centralized and nationalistic societies and separated by the respective state boundaries. These scientific societies also had a more "descriptive" approach to research. For example the British Geological Society had been founded in 1807 to facilitate the collection and communication of new facts, but surprisingly its politics was against promoting speculations or discussions of new systems and theories.
Nevertheless Charles Lyell, by some fellows considered as an "advocate" for his theoretical approach of geology, regarding the meetings of the Society was full of praise, he reg
ularly told his friends about the "splendid meeting", or even "excellent meeting" and noted enthusiastic "all the best men present". During these meetings new papers were presented, followed (anyway) by discussions. These unscripted and spontaneous debates set the Geological Society apart from its fellow societies, where questions were either submitted in advance or not allowed at all. But still in the tradition of science regarded as an ivory tower and maintaining the myth that scientific achievement were uncontroversial, not only there were no interest by the society to publish the ongoing discussions; it was even forbidden to the members of the society.

ite the restrictive politics of such organizations, the communications between some individual naturalists was impressive. The German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769 - 1859) in his lifetime wrote 35.000 letters, and received more then 100.000, in some years he spent one tenth of his income for post taxes.
He w
as also one of the first scholars to organize popular lectures about his voyages for the common people - the meetings were great successes in a time were discussion of science outside academia was considered not "respectable".

Fig.1. Alexander von Humboldt is considered one of the last of the universal geniuses, his entire life he collected single facts, but he ever promoted to conclude from them the greater, the entire system. He also was a great promoter of public science: "Geological map of the Earth after Ami Boué and Johnston", figure from HUMBOLDT 1854 masterpiece "Kosmos".

The British naturalist Darwin is known for his extensive correspondence during his lifetime, he sent at least 7.591 letters and received 6.530 letters (OLIVEIRA & BARABASI 2005), corresponding with professional and amateur naturalists from over the world, and collecting as much facts as possible for his book on the origin of species. P.S. Regarding Darwin, his response time for a received letter was ca. 10 days.
One of the most important letters to Darwin was send by Wallace on March 9. 1858 from the post station of the island of Ternate. It was first was shipped to Singapore; from there a post ship of the British P & O Steamship Company, connecting Hong Kong to Suez, brought it to Africa. The letter then was transported on land to Alexandria, where it again was shipped over the Mediterranean Sea to Paris, then Rotterdam, and finally London. So after three months finally the letter arrived timely in the morning to Down House, Bromley, Kent - 26 kilometres southeast of London, and 12.000 kilometres east of New Guinea.

Fig.2. Simultaneously with the "Ternate manuscript" and the letter to Darwin, Wallace sent a letter to Frederick Bates in Leicester, who was delivered in London, as confirmed by the post stamp, on 3. June 1858 (figure from GLAUBRECHT 2008).

The news of eruption of the Krakatau, 25 years later but happening in the same geographical region, p
assed telegraphically from Batavia to Sydney and Singapore, from where it was send to Bombay. And passing from Suez, Malta, Gibraltar to Lisbon it was redirected in Britain to Europe and the United States. In only 24 hours the entire civilized world had heard about the catastrophe, making of Krakatau the first global geological event.

Fig.3. The first journal to bring the news about the eru
ption of the Krakatau was the Dutch "Java Bode" on 27 August 1883, one day after the disaster. Later the English journal "The Illustrated London News" (08.09.1883) published some drawings of the region before the devastation.

Nearly 90 years later, it was this idea of improved communication that between 1970 and 1990 forced the development of the first computer networks. In the last 20 years the original internet has profoundly changed. New and fast data lines have triggered an unprecedented interactivity, most sites include text, images, animations and videos, also the common WYSIWG -editors enable even noobs like me to create quick and cheap an online presence in form of a Blog and related posts.

The online blogs, the motivation behind it and the scientific "quality" a
re as diverse as diverse are the blogger personalities. Nevertheless most science dedicated posts are of significant quality, often more technical than you might read in a common newspaper and mainstream media (MSM). General science journalism boomed in the 1980s and early 1990s, even if it was considered by the majority of editors simply as "appendix" - useful, but no necessarily profitable.

Fig.4. Even in the middle of nowhere, in this case the village of Ujiji in Africa, information is all, Stanley (on the left) brought Livingstone, for 5 years isolated from the "civilized" world, journals and the last political developments (figure from RADEMACHER 2003).

Internet seemed a valuable and cheap alternative to the print media. The last years have so seen emerge even a discussion if blogs can surpass journalism in science divulgation. After a survey by the journal Nature between 2004 and 2009 the percentage of journalists that used blogs as a source for science related stories grow from 18 to 63%, in the same time the number of blogging journalists raised from 4 to 32% (BRUMFIELD 2009).
One of the obvious advantages of blogs is their short reaction time, the earthquake on Haiti, the eruption of the Icelandic Volcano or the landslide dam triggered an immediate and long lasting response of various bloggers.

Although science blogging did not start off as a business, there were and are attempts to make it one. Since 2006, the publisher of Seed, a magazine about science, has gathered more than 100 science blogs on a wide range of topics, paying bloggers, who where anyway completely free in their decision what to post, and earning profit by advertisement on the blog-pages. This new economy has experienced a serious setback by the meanwhile so denoted "Pepsi-Gate".

Despite this case, professional blogs by professional authors and book projects (proving that books and internet to not exclude each other) are quite a minority, at least from the survey conducted on the geoblogosphere it is clear that most blogs are managed by single or a very small number of individual(s), mostly for private reasons, to share experience or photos, to present new papers or research they came along or to have simply fun.

This blogiversity and the democracy of blogs are their greatest strength, and their greatest weakness. It is often criticized by scientific journals that the source of information's on blogs are elusive, and the presented facts not controlled - everybody can affirm everything. Most bloggers agree that blogs are not the medium for peer-reviewed research, but a possibility to reach in an easy way a lot of people, to discuss science in an informal gathering.
And this personal component may is one factor that until now has limited the traditional professional scientist and institutions to blog:
"Most scientists are not comfortable with blogging," says Myers. "The training we get is to separate opinion from evidence, but blogs blur the difference." (from an interview by BONETTA 2007).
I think it's no coincidence that most blogs and bloggers came from the U.S., here institutions and academia are less affected by obsolete traditions, the performance of teachers and disciples is more appreciated and evaluated and so new approaches are encouraged, not rejected.

Considering this perspective, not much has changed since the days of von Humboldt, nearly 200 years ago.

Lectures, letters and blogs are only tools, and it depends of us what we make of them.


BONETTA, L. (2007): Leading Edge Analysis - Scientists Enter the Blogosphere. Cell 129: 443-445
BRUMFIELD, G. (2009): Science journalism: Supplanting the old media? Nature Vol.458: 274-277

GLAUBRECHT, M. (2008): Alfred Russel Wallace und der Wettlauf um die Evolutionstheorie Teil 2 . Naturwissenschaftliche Rundschau 61(8): 403-408
KOUPER, I. (2010): Science blogs and public engagement with science: practices, challenges, and opportunities. Journal of Science Communication - Special Issue on peer-to-peer and user-led science 9(1): 1-9

OLIVEIRA, J.G. & BARABASI, A.-L. (2005): Darwin and Einstein correspondence patterns. Nature Vol 437: 1251
RADEMACHER, C. (2003): Livingstone. GEO 06: 84-100

THACKRAY, J. C. (1998): Charles Lyell and the Geological Society. In: BLUNDELL, D. J. & SCOTT, A. C. (eds) Lyell: the Past is the Key to the Present. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 143: 17-20

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