Social Media and Academics: Beyond the Brand

I enjoyed Sara Custer’s thought-provoking Times Higher Education article on the perils of social media for academics  and was prompted to add my tuppence-worth. Here’s the post in question for those outside the paywall…

Sara Custer’s timely and thought-provoking feature article on the ups and downs of social media in academia struck a loud, resonant chord with me. A few years back I deleted my Twitter account, subsequently blitzed my personal YouTube channel, and put my blog on an extended hiatus. This act of social media suicide – as my soon-to-be-teenage daughter likes to refer to it – was prompted by a number of the factors described, or alluded to, in Custer’s article: the toxicity, the time-wasting, and the sheer, utter stupidity of indulging in pointless playground spats online.

My personal Twitter nadir came in a 1:00 am exchange with Louise Mensch where her riposte to a carefully crafted tweet was “LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL!!!”. Followed by a tweenage meme. Sigh. What was I doing with my life? (On the plus side, I was blocked by the legend-in-his-own-lunchtime that is Milo Yiannopoulos after just two tweets. With Deepak Chopra, one tweet was enough… (Add smiley emoji to taste.))

I’m not going to rehearse the reasons behind my disconnection and distancing from social media. (For those masochistic enough to be interested in all the tedious detail, it’s available at the now resurrected blog.) Nor am I going to trot out some trite, patronising, vacuous, TED-esque “Twelve Reasons You Too Should Shut Down Your Social Media Accounts” self-help guff. (Not this time at least. I’m not entirely blameless when it comes to the listicle thing, however.) Social media are just tools for communication. And, as Custer highlighted, not only do (most) academics like to communicate, communication is our core ‘business’; our raison d’etre. We also tend to be a fairly argumentative species. From that perspective, the social media ecosystem is our natural habitat in many ways.

But one aspect of social media engagement that is still not sufficiently well-recognised by universities in their headlong rush to encourage as many of their academics, and, increasingly, students, to connect online (so as to maximise that all-important impact factor) is just how viciously toxic it can get. And, make no mistake, that toxicity can bleed offline into real life. While Custer’s article highlights how universities consider the potential effects of social media posts and profiles on their brand (both positive and negative), many of those august institutions seem rather less concerned about highlighting the downsides of a social media profile to their staff and, even more worryingly, are not always as supportive as they could be when things go wrong. (That’s not a veiled criticism of the University of Nottingham (where I’m based), by the way. The School here is very supportive and our HoS is active on a variety of social media platforms and well aware of the risks).

What used to be the preserve of cesspits like 4chan is increasingly overground online, polluting mainstream sites such as YouTube and Twitter. Whitney Phillips, Angela Nagle, and Mike Wendling have each very convincingly argued this point in “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, “Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right”, and “Alt-Right: From 4chan to the White House”, respectively. And yet when I speak at academic meetings and workshops whose focus is the application and exploitation of social media, I find that there is often a worrying lack of appreciation of just how bad it can get. Mention of GamerGate and Anita Sarkeesian, for example, draws blank stares and a lack of raised hands when I ask those in attendance if they’re familiar with the torrents of abuse and threats that Sarkeesian and others have received. Here’s just one week of Sarkeesian’s Twitter feed from a few years back. I also strongly recommend this video to any student or academic thinking about posting their research online.

I’m a middle-aged physicist whose research focuses on pushing, poking, and prodding single atoms. And I’m a bloke. As compared to a female PhD student in, oh, let’s say, gender studies, I have it ridiculously easy indeed when it comes to communicating my research online. But it’s not just gender studies that’s in the firing line. Certain online gurus, including the lobster- and dragon-fixated Jordan B Peterson, would have it that entire schools of education, sociology, English, and swathes of the humanities are all deeply suspect at best (and fundamentally corrupt at worst), and, as befits those champions of free speech, should be shut down forthwith. And Peterson, for one, has a substantial flock hanging on his every word.

University management and funding bodies need to inform themselves about just how viciously toxic it can get on social media. Too often, their perception seems to be that there’s an adoring public “out there” waiting with bated breath to hear about the latest research findings. This is breathtakingly naïve. For many, academics and experts are part of the problem, not the solution. Universities need to start thinking beyond the brand.





Jess Wade: Scientist on a Mission

I got an e-mail with a link to an article in today’s Guardian about the irrepressible and inspiring Jess Wade just before I went to get my afternoon cup of tea. I’ve rushed back, tea in hand, to quickly blog and say how delighted I was to see Jess’ efforts recognised not only by my favourite newspaper — I know, I know, typical sandal-wearing, muesli-munching, beardy, lefty, Cultural Marxist, Guardian-reading academic [1] — but also by the recent award of the Institute of Physics’ Daphne Jackson prize.

As the Guardian article describes, Jess is a postdoc working in the field of organic electronics at Imperial College. I have been aware of Jess’ work and her efforts in public engagement and the promotion of physics to girls for quite some time but most recently met her at a SciFoo ‘unconference’ at the Googleplex, Mountain View, CA (which was …checks diary…almost a year ago. Wow. Time flies.) Jess led a session on gender balance and diversity in science and it was easily the most energetic and engaging session of the entire conference (and that’s saying something, given the competition).

I had brought a copy of Angela Saini’s Inferior with me to read on the plane to SciFoo. Inferior, a t-shirt of whose cover Jess is proudly wearing in the photo accompanying the Guardian article, was deservedly Physics World’s Book Of The Year 2017. (Here’s Jess’ review). Jess had brought about ten copies of Inferior with her to the SciFoo event which she distributed for free at the session! (I should stress that Jess is neither on commission nor did she have a grant from which to buy the books — she bought them with money out of her own pocket.)

I am pleased to say that Jess will be coming to Nottingham Physics & Astronomy later this year to give a talk on her research and that Angela Saini will be speaking to the Science Faculty here for International Women’s Day 2019.

Now, usually the last place you want to spend any time online is below the line, even when it comes to The Guardian’s comments section (as Philip Ball has pointed out). But it’s worth scanning down through the comments under Jess’ article for comedy value alone. The same tedious, uninformed, unscientific, zombie ‘arguments’ about gender balance that are rebutted so well in Inferior (and in Cordelia Fine’s work) are trotted out by rather disgruntled individuals who have a particularly buzzy bee in their bonnet about the natural order of things. I particularly liked this exchange:


I’d really like to hope that JohnJNorris’ comment up there is a pitifully weak attempt at a joke. But given the below-the-line commentary that accompanies virtually any article on gender in science, it’s not against the odds at all that JohnJ is being deathly serious.

“Outrunner’s” riposte is priceless in any case…

[1] OK, most of that’s true. But not the sandals. Definitely not the sandals. I’ve never worn sandals in my life. *shudder* And, to be honest, I’m really not quite certain what a Cultural Marxist is. Or does. But, apparently, academia is absolutely infested with them.

The Aussie Pink Floyd Podcast #4

(…or should that be The Aussie Pinkcast?)

Last Tuesday I visited my friend Dave Domminney Fowler, guitarist with the Australian Pink Floyd, singer, keyboardist, drummer, songwriter, sound engineer, computer programmer, digital audio enthusiast, MIDI expert, self-confessed geek, and all-round obscenely talented bloke, at his home-cum-recording-studio in Sidcup, just outside London, to record a couple of podcasts.

Dave and I had a blast…

Not only is Dave an exceptional musician, but as I’ve mentioned before, he could very easily steal the mantle of “nicest guy in rock” from a certain Dave Grohl. He and I spent six or so hours playing guitar and nattering at length over copious amounts of tea. (It should be said that Dave has one or two guitars at his disposal…


…and that’s certainly not all of ’em.)

The first of those podcasts, #4 in the Australian Pink Floyd series, was uploaded yesterday. Here’s the YouTube version, but it’s also available via a stream at the Aussie Pink Floyd site and via iTunes. Be warned, it gets a little bit “physics-y” in the first half — Dave and I are both massive Fourier analysis fans so we got perhaps (possibly, maybe) a little too carried away by the technical detail. It all settles down in the second half…

The second podcast was for Dave’s upcoming new (and yet unrevealed…) project. This featured discussions about social media (and social media shaming), tribalism, the Peterson-Harris ‘debate’ that Dave attended the night before, thunderf00t, sexism, and the greatest ever guitarists. (Some of Dave’s choices really surprised me. A man of eclectic tastes…) And that was just for starters. If and when the podcast appears online, I’ll certainly blog about it!

Thank you, Dave, for such a great day in Sidcup. (And there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write…)

“Think Graham Norton meets the Broom Cupboard. In space.”


It’s not every day you get to sit down and have a chat with someone who hacked their way into space…

…but I had the immense pleasure of doing just that yesterday. Pictured above, very helpfully holding a copy of that book I’ve been (head)banging on about a little of late (see “Other Scribblings” in the sidebar to the right or here if you’re reading on a mobile device), is the powerhouse of science communication — no, let’s make that science entertainment — that is the inimitable Jon Spooner. To whet your appetite, here’s a one minute clip of Jon — and his colleagues, Flight Dynamics Officer Simon Perkins and astronaut Little Jon — in action at the Manchester Science Festival last year. (Jon told me that he and Simon have had a pretty hectic schedule over the last year, having done eight festivals in twelve months).

The quote from a parent included in that video,

It was amazing, brilliantly educational. It brought a tear to my eye.

neatly sums up exactly the reaction that my fourteen year old daughter, Niamh, and I had to Jon’s “How I Hacked My Way Into Space” tour de force at the Blue Dot Festival at Jodrell Bank this weekend. (You’re not getting any spoilers here, however. If you want to know just how Jon hacked his way off our pale blue dot, you’re going to have to go along and experience the adventures of the Unlimited Space Agency for yourself. There’s a list of tour dates here.)


Before Jon’s high octane performance at 2 pm yesterday afternoon, I was delighted to be one of the guests for his Space Shed interview series. The title of the blog post you’re reading is the description Jon gave me yesterday of the Space Shed: “Think Graham Norton meets the Broom Cupboard. In space.” (Those of you who are Irish or British are likely to be fairly familiar with both of those cultural references. For those elsewhere in the world — and since its reboot, Symptoms… has attracted readers from 70 countries — here’s a brief introduction to Graham Norton. Despite his incredibly successful career as a chat show host and presenter, however, this performance remains for me his finest hour:

And here’s The Broom Cupboard.)

Before I reveal just what we nattered about yesterday — and as a convivial, clever and charming host, Jon could certainly give Mr. Norton a run for his money — I guess I should explain what I was doing at Blue Dot in the first place.

…all the way to The ‘Bank

The eagle-eyed Sixty Symbols viewers among you — and I know that at least some of those who read Symptoms… posts have watched a Sixty Symbols video or two — may have noticed that the schedule for the Space Shed also included my colleagues Tony Padilla and Clare Burrage, both of whom have contributed to Brady Haran‘s YouTube channels. (As I write this, Clare is in the middle of her Space Shed interview. If you’re having even an infinitesimal amount of the fun I had yesterday, Clare, you’ll be having a blast!) Tony, Clare, and myself weren’t the only Sixty Symbols people involved: Meghan (Gray) and Becky (Smethurst) were also at Blue Dot. Indeed, it was Meghan who was not only responsible for our invitation to Blue Dot but who communicated with the “powers that be” in terms of sorting out the logistics (including travel) related to not only the Space Shed appearances but a Sixty Symbols panel discussion in the Star Pavillion on Friday evening. More on that soon. But, first, some thanks.

I jumped (over-)enthusiastically at the chance to contribute to Blue Dot because its innovative blend of music and science really presses all my buttons (or, errrm, turns my dials to 11. I’ll get me coat…). That book (y’know the one…over there…sidebar to the right) and this rather noisy ‘math metal’ song  are two examples of my love of music-physics-maths crossover, but there are others, including this rather more sedate approach to merging numbers and music and this discussion of correlations and fluctuations in drum beats. It turns out that Meghan also has a long-standing interest in music-science crossover: as a high school student she wrote a computer program to produce music in the style of Bach. (Mr. Haran, if you’re reading, I, for one, would be really keen to see a video on this…)

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Meghan publicly and profusely for sorting out the invitation to Blue Dot. (Well, as public as it gets when it comes to the audience for Symptoms… I appreciate you both tuning in again). To say I thoroughly enjoyed myself at the festival would be a massive understatement. In addition to the wonderful atmosphere, the great music, and the incredible range of science, I got to wear one of these “passes”:



As a failed and now-follicularly-challenged musician, this made me ridiculously happy, not least because sitting across the way from Niamh and me at lunch yesterday was Gary Numan. Gary f**king Numan. This guy. An inspiration for so many musicians and bands across a wide range of genres, Numan was playing the Lovell Stage at Blue Dot 2018.)

OK, back to that Sixty Symbols panel I mentioned. Here’s how it looked mid-event…

…and this is how we felt directly afterwards:

The panel was great fun, with the Q&A session (following our five minute presentations) being a real highlight. A thoroughly engaged, and engaging, audience asked us a range of questions on topics including, but certainly not limited to, the science we do, the music we like, the YouTube videos with Brady, and women in science. (There’s a certain contingent online who get very, very cross indeed at even the briefest mention of sexism and related issues. If you’re one of those who feels the red mist descending already, this trigger warning may prove helpful. (Having said that, they tend not to read too deeply so almost certainly won’t have got this far into the post.)) As a dyed-in-the-wool experimentalist and a lowly squalid state physicist, I especially enjoyed the light-hearted spat between Clare and Tony on the current state of string theory towards the end of our session.


My Space Shed interview/Q&A the following day similarly touched on a wide variety of themes, with many perceptive and brilliant questions from both Jon and the audience. (Another big thank you at this point to UNSA’s Flight Commander Alison McIntyre for making sure that the flight was a success and for all of her behind the scenes organisation. Thank you, Alison!)

Jon and I had decided beforehand that we’d give a prize of a free copy of the book — yes, I know, the plugs are getting tedious now. That was the last one. Promise. — to those who asked the best questions. In the end, all eight of those who asked a question got a copy because it was impossible to pick winners. Two that stuck with me were from Evie (aged 7), “Where do the atoms go when there’s an earthquake?” and Oliver, a slightly older (i.e. age > 7) and rather more hirsute PhD student: “If the Schrodinger equation were a riff, what riff would it be?” How much more metal could that question get? None. None more metal.

(By the way, Evie, if you ever read this, I’m so very, very sorry for not concentrating when I wrote on your book so that what I’d written made no sense (because I’d left out a word.) I don’t multi-task well — talking and writing at the same time overtaxes my brain! Thank you for pointing out the mistake to me and giving me the opportunity to fix it. And thanks, of course, for your brilliant question!)

After the Space Shed Q&A, I asked Niamh how it went; did I embarrass her? “No, Dad, you didn’t embarrass me. Well, not entirely.”

What greater accolade can a father expect from his teenage daughter?

“Not entirely embarrassed”.

I’ll take that.

My Time Out in Astrophysics

I’m reblogging this important and affecting post from Peter ColesIn The Dark. (See also his Reflections On A Bigoted Lecturer post from a few weeks back).

In the Dark

Last week I did a little talk in Cardiff for LGBT Stem Day, which was similar to another I gave earlier this year at the IOP in London at the launch of the LGBT Physical Sciences Climate Survey. I intended to post a summary of the earlier presentation but somehow never got round to it. Doing the more recent one reminded me that I’d forgotten to write up my notes, so here goes.

What I was trying to do in these talks was to explain why I thought (a) the Climate Survey and (b) LGBT STEM day were so important, from the perspective of someone who has been `out’ for over thirty years while pursuing a career in astrophysics. I thought it might be useful to include some personal reminiscences along the way as in both cases most of the audience members were too young to remember what…

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