Reviews Physics World  November 2014

Web life: The Fictional Aether

So what is the site about?

The Fictional Aether is a blog written by Mark D Hannam, an astrophysicist at Cardiff University, UK. Hannam’s physics research is about what happens when two black holes collide, but his blog is more about the collision between scientific ideals and the way science is actually done. Far from being a noble pursuit of universal truths, Hannam writes, real science is usually just as full of “incompetence, rivalry, power struggles, pettiness and stupidity, needless crises and ridiculous dramas” as any other job. Nevertheless, he adds, science does still work, and its practitioners continue to make incredible progress in eroding the vast edifice of human ignorance.

What are some common topics?

As well as being interested in the way science is done, Hannam is also a devoted (though characteristically critical) fan of the BBC science-fiction series Doctor Who. Accordingly, he dedicates numerous posts to analysing and complaining about the latest episodes and plot twists. However, the bulk of the blog is made up of Hannam skewering the foibles of academic science (impenetrable seminars, poor job prospects and so on), and telling comically exaggerated stories about his life.

How much of it is actually true?

Let’s put it this way. If the science blogosphere were a party in a Hollywood film, The Fictional Aether would be the weathered, cynical hack standing in the corner with a glass of whisky and a bottomless supply of juicy, but unverifiable, gossip. A series of posts from the summer of 2014 illustrates this. In the series’ first post, Hannam tells the story of a friend called “Richard” who was 45 minutes away from delivering a career-defining talk when he learned, via e-mail, that all his results were wrong. Feeling trapped, “Richard” gave the talk anyway, and on the strength of it, he was offered an interview for a prestigious tenure-track job. The second post picks up from there, as “Richard’s” little white lie (and was it really a lie?) becomes the foundation for a promising academic career. In the third post in the series, the tale turns increasingly baroque, with Hannam professing to be “freaked out” by the responses to his first two posts – including, he claims, legal threats from people who think they must be “Richard”. Is the story fictional? Probably. Is it plausible? Just about. Is it entertaining? Definitely.

Why should I visit?

Combative, cynical and often profane, Hannam’s blog persona makes the perfect antidote to the “Isn’t the universe amazing?” tendencies among certain other members of the science outreach community. Reading some of his posts feels a little bit like sneaking away from a conference full of happy, enthusiastic speakers in order to bitch with your mates about your failed grant proposal, your terrible students and that one piece of kit that keeps breaking even though the sales rep assured you it was much better than the last one you bought off him, the bastard. This may not be your cup of tea, and even if it is, it’s probably not healthy to make The Fictional Aether the only physics blog on your reading list. Now and then, though, many readers will find it’s just the ticket.

Can you give me a sample quote?

From a September 2014 post about Galileo: “When espousing the joys of science to the young, it is wise not to reveal details about actual scientists. I once made that mistake. Just before I left New Zealand to start my PhD, I did some outreach work, and lectured high-school students on the dramatic story of Galileo…Even in those ignorant times before the invention of Wikipedia, it took me only an hour of background reading to discover that the myth was a tad skewed…What I discovered was that the story of Galileo wasn’t as simple, or as pure, as I once thought. What I should also have discovered, but has only just dawned on me, was that he was the model not just for modern science, but for modern hotshot scientists as well. A great talent tethered to boundless ambition? A monstrous ego? A delight in pissing off as many people as possible? Sounds like half of the scientists I know. And next time you put your nose in the air and mock the paper chasers who leap onto the latest hot topic in a desperate search for a headline result – just remember, they’re following in some illustrious footsteps.”