Saturday, April 4, 2009

Behind the Scenes...or, Why is it so quiet here?

A recently published comment in an earlier post has tried to make an issue of my recent 'silence' in responding to various comments. They obviously didn't bother to read my post of March 29 where I remarked that several commenters have basically written tomes highly divergent from the original topic. A number of them touch into areas where a separate post would be appropriate (and they get added to my topics list) or where a separate post is already under development. If they raise an interesting question which applies to a subject under development, I usually include a flag in the topic.

For reference, I currently have 22 entries in my “Drafts” folder, at various stages of completion, and 51 entries under “Topics”, needing some to significant research. Most of these topics have accumulated over the years based on discussions by e-mail, the USENET forum, and similar sources.

But perhaps I should describe just what it takes to maintain this project. First, I am not paid to do this. It is a hobby and connected to my science education interests. I will occasionally browse comments at during lunchtime at work, to begin mulling over responses to those where a response can be quick, but I don't participate from the workplace. With a full-time+ job, and home and family responsibilities, I get, if I'm lucky, two hours MAXIMUM to work on this project on any given weekday. Weekends I can occasionally spend more time. Those needy individuals who think I owe them a response on a daily, or even weekly timescale, are in for some disappointment.

So what do I do with that time that I spend on this project?

I try to assemble my responses as a SCIENTIFIC research project. This is more than mining papers for quotes that support my position. A huge number of the comments are rehashes of material I've seen many times before, and they are generally ignored. Of those comments that actually have some novelty, most of the queries I investigate cover topics where I already have access to a fair amount of information. Very few topics initiate a line of inquiry where I have little to no information to start with.

1) So some of this time might involve reading or re-reading research papers or chapters of textbooks and digesting the content. Sometimes it involves tracking down new references. My primary BibTeX database used for this project has accumulated over 4100 entries, of which only about 600 have actually been read to date.

2) Because science depends on building mathematical models, I will make attempts to build appropriate models for either a research paper, or a crank claim. In the simplest cases, a few simple computations, I try to let the work sit for a day and come back to double-check the math. In more complex cases, I'll actually write code to do the calculations. In the more elaborate cases, this can involve considerable effort. This code is usually written in Python, using the numpy and scipy libraries for array processing and differential equations, and PyX, matplotlib, or VisIt for plotting and displaying the output. These are legitimate scientific tools of professional quality.

3) Because science depends on comparing model predictions to data and/or observations, I'll sometimes retrieve data from a number of public data archives. Some of those I've used in this project are SOHO Data Archive, Virtual Solar Observatory, The Astronomer's Bazaar, HST data archive, Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and even Google Sky. Sometimes this involves downloading or writing software to read some obscure data format. Fortunately, most of the data archives I've used provide their data as flat text files or one of the many standardized scientific formats.

4) In some cases, I've sent inquiries for clarification of some research to the scientists involved, and even contacted former professors when I encountered issues that had been explored as part of my graduate studies.

BTW, this process rarely progresses on one topic at a time. It is multi-tasked and often the topic that finally appears is determined more by which one makes it to a state of completion first than when someone originally raised the subject.

Between the 'hard science' posts, which take the most time, I'll occasionally do some science philosophy or science history posts, in cases where I have a lot of material handy and would like to take a break.

No comments: