ScienceOnline2012 – interview with Samuel Arbesman

Every year I ask some of the attendees of the ScienceOnline conferences to tell me (and my readers) more about themselves, their careers, current projects and their views on the use of the Web in science, science education or science communication. So now we continue with the participants of ScienceOnline2012. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today my guest is Samuel Arbesman (Twitter).

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your background? Any scientific education?

I’m an applied mathematician and am currently a Senior Scholar at the Kauffman Foundation, based in Kansas City.

I grew up in Buffalo and went to Brandeis University in the Boston suburbs for my undergraduate degree, where I studied biology and computer science. Continuing this path, I got a PhD at Cornell in computational biology and then went back to Boston for a postdoc at Harvard, where I studied network science and computational sociology.

Alongside all of this, I began writing for popular audiences about science. I just finished my first book, The Half-Life of Facts, which will be published at the end of September.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

My career has been rather strange and at the interstitial parts of the sciences.

Soon after I began my PhD at Cornell, I realized that while I enjoyed the mathematical and computational models of biology, I wanted to use these models to understand social systems. I moved more into understanding network science and how people interact and collaborate, especially when it comes to scientific progress.

Happily, my committee was very supportive of this shift and allowed me to do some highly interdisciplinary research, even including some applied mathematical analysis of baseball hitting streaks.

After finishing graduate school, I continued in a postdoc where I had the opportunity to continue doing network science research, as well as applied math work into collaboration and scientific progress more generally.

In parallel, I had been slowly nurturing my writing hobby. I got a first taste of this when I wrote about my baseball research with my grad school adviser Steve Strogatz in the New York Times. After moving to Boston, I began writing for the Ideas section of the Boston Globe. Ideas is one of those amazing sections of the paper that don’t really exist anywhere else, but is enormously important. As lucky as I’ve been in my academic career to be given the freedom to play with lots of different topics, Ideas gave me the freedom to play with a lot of crazy ideas as well (everything from how to name a scientific constant to fantasy geopolitics). Lastly, they gave me the space to write a short essay about the pace at which facts change around us, and coin the term mesofact.

This essay gave way to the book that is being published at the end of September, The Half-Life of Facts, which I am really excited about and is a fun repository of all the disparate knowledge I have lodged in my brain.

Due to my interdisciplinary research and my interest in writing for popular audiences, I knew that I would not fit particularly well in traditional academia. While I conducted the traditional job search at the conclusion of my postdoc, I was extremely excited when the Kauffman Foundation – a private foundation devoted to entrepreneurship, innovation, and education – approached me about joining as a Senior Scholar. At Kauffman I was given the opportunity to pursue my interdisciplinary research unhindered by departmental boundaries, do loads of popular writing, and in general indulge my interests. I jumped at the opportunity and as I start my second year here, I am very happy with my decision.

Since joining the Kauffman Foundation, I have worked on understanding cities and how they are related to innovation and science. I am also involved with trying to understand the future of science, tied in with understanding how knowledge changes more generally.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

The biggest project right is now my book, which is devoted to the science behind how knowledge changes. But more generally related to how knowledge works, I am focusing on the future of science, and trying to understand the types of institutions that we need in order to foster the types of activities that are truly valuable for science.

In addition, I am continuing my work on cities and innovation, from an applied mathematics perspective.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, Google Plus and Facebook? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

Blogging is a big portion of my work. My job at Kauffman involves spreading ideas, exploring various concepts and topics, and representing the Kauffman Foundation. Kauffman is very supportive of my blogging at Wired, as well as my use of Twitter and other social media. All of these connect me with a great and varied community, and allow me to maintain a network of colleagues.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

I’ve been reading science blogs in an inconsistent way for a long time, and I have been blogging at least sporadically since at least 2007. However, one turning point in my understanding of the incredible community inherent in science blogs where I first read Bora’s epic post after PepsiGate.

Since then, I read many different blogs, though I still get my links to articles in an inconsistent way (mainly from Twitter). But if I had to single any blogs out, I would say that Tim de Chant’s Per Square Mile and Dave Ng’s Popperfont are great and well worth reading.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2012 for you? Any suggestions for next year? Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?

The best aspect was meeting in person everyone I had interacted with online. I think there was only one person at scio12 who I had met in person before; everyone else I knew through Twitter, email, or even just by reputation. So being able to interact face-to-face with all these amazing people was something close to magic.

Thank you! See you in January!

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