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Blogging about nukes

A new virtual debate from the Institute of Physics

Kat Arney 4 June 2006

Blog jam: Arney finds her newest project challenging at times

As a tool for science communication and engagement, blogs have the potential to be very useful. But are they actually working?

"The Internet: invented so you can share your pathology with the whole planet rather than just your psychotherapist."

You know the sort. They sit there in the pub, spouting off about something they don’t really know about. "Well," they say, perhaps banging the table for emphasis, "Let me tell you what I think!"

This is how I feel about bloggers – those people who fill acres of the internet with their internal monologues made grotesquely external. But now, and may God and/or Gods forgive me, I have become one of them.

I was recently asked by the Institute of Physics to contribute to Potential Energy, a blog exploring the issues surrounding the continued use of nuclear power in the UK. This initiative comes as the UK government is trying to decide if we need to build more atomic power stations. Along with two other writers, we are attempting to make up our minds about the information that’s out there, and hopefully to engage others with the subject.

I’ve made a few pathetic attempts at starting a blog before, but they rapidly ran out of steam. This one is much more serious, and nuclear power is a subject I know little about. Now I long for the days when I just burbled onto the screen without having to spend hours researching, then trying to find the best approximation of truth in the mass of spin coming from each side of the debate. Of course, this is why I’m working on the project, alongside others who are much more well-informed. In my own inimitable style, I’m hoping to provide a way into the debate for people like me who are vaguely interested and concerned about nuclear energy but don’t really know much about it.

The best thing about the internet is its ability to bring groups of like-minded people together to share information and opinions. Granted, this often means freaks and perverts, but there’s something out there for everyone. Even science fans. As a tool for science communication and engagement, blogs have the potential to be very useful. But are they actually working? We know that people are reading our blog. Some of them are even coming back for more. But I wonder who it is we are actually reaching. The comments section seems to attract a small group of the "usual suspects", who like to state and re-state their opinions with varying degrees of eloquence.

The one thing that irks me about blogging is the sense that one is just ranting into the ether. A science writer, who also keeps a blog, recently commented on a mailing list that "Blogging is a specious phenomenon, full of piss and wind signifying even less than nothing." In some cases I would whole-heartedly agree. Back in the old days, when email was still a little bit exciting, blogs were all about trawling the web for interesting sites to share with others. Now they mostly seem to be vehicles for the writer’s ego. In the right hands, this can make great reading. One of my favourite hobbies is knitting, and I’m a huge fan of Yarn Harlot, who describes her daily battles with the vagaries of knit and purl. But there’s an awful lot of badly-written rubbish out there.

In recent years, we have seen blogs become a major part of the new media, be it for august political comment or scurrilous celebrity gossip. And the mass media is becoming more interactive than ever before. News sites such as the BBC encourage the public to send in their own photos of events, and comment on situations. This may aggravate the "old guard" of science writers who believe that they act as the sole gatekeepers of scientific information and opinion. But if we truly want to move towards public ‘engagement’ with science – rather than the old-fashioned ‘understanding’, then I believe tools such as blogs have a major part to play.

Some could argue that our blog at Potential Energy is pointless, and merely adds to the cacophony of opinion about the future of nuclear power. But I hope that it will encourage others like me to finally get around to thinking about the issues and engaging with them.

Related information

You can read Kat’s ramblings and add to the debate at Potential Energy.