Twitter has over 280 million active users who send around 500 million tweets a day. These are impressive statistics, and we all hear regularly of some news or controversy that starts and spreads via a tweet. Given the extensive reach of the Twitter network, one would think that it might be useful for serious science. However, most scientists tend to think that Twitter is at best not especially relevant or indeed that it’s a complete waste of time! That said, there are a number of high profile scientists (e.g. Brian Cox, Neil de Grasse Tyson) and research institutes (e.g. CERN, NASA) with over a million followers, so there are clearly many people who wish to hear what scientists have to say.
Two years ago I was a Twitter-skeptic, but I thought I should at least try it out. After all, as physicists, we are not supposed to make decisions without at least doing the experiment. Now after two years, I see much more clearly what it has to offer and I am indeed a Twitter convert!
Twitter allows a user to broadcast messages of up to 140 characters (tweets) to an audience (followers). So in this sense, the easiest way to use Twitter is simply to sign up, follow some interesting people, and check out what they have to say. In addition to research institutions, most scientific journals and learned societies tweet very regularly, and so this “reading” approach to Twitter is a simple way to keep in touch with latest results, summarised in a few words and accompanied by a picture and a link. There are also many physics educators who provide wonderful ideas for teaching, and links to free resources such as videos that are of very high quality. Of course there are many sources of non-scientific information that one can follow just for fun. Using Twitter in this way is not time-consuming, it can be done easily through a phone while mobile, and it definitely has made me aware of things that otherwise I would have missed. Highly recommended.
Some people claim that Twitter can also be useful to create research collaborations and for the exchange of new ideas, but here I am really not convinced. Maybe this is a matter of personal work habits, but I don’t think that exchanges of messages of up to 140 characters is useful to construct any kind of complex argument. Also, you need to be constantly on-line, and that’s not possible for many of us with busy days of research, teaching and meetings, although I confess that reading Twitter during a not-so-interesting meeting can provide a very welcome distraction…
There also appears to be a real and growing interest from many young people – scientists and non-scientists alike – to hear about the trivia of the daily life of a physicist and to connect with the broader physics community. If you feel like speaking on Twitter rather than just reading what others have to say, then this really does provide a way of reaching a large number of people; one shouldn’t be afraid to make a start, since the networked nature of Twitter means that you can have a large impact even if you don’t have a large number of followers. What matters of course is what you say and whether others pass it on!
It’s unfortunately true that physicists are often seen as being a little anti-social, but Twitter provides a real opportunity to change this, as we can connect with people that we would not otherwise connect with. It’s certainly not for everyone, but do the experiment as I did and try it for a few weeks. Google “physics on twitter” or something similar to get started and simply ask yourself at the end if you have learned something useful that otherwise you wouldn’t have. And if you have, keep doing the experiment.
This is the final editorial of e-EPS that I write as President so let me first begin by extending my sincere appreciation to you all for your help and support over the last two years. I would like to thank especially Luisa Cifarelli who had set the scene in creating a strong platform for EPS to implement its 2010+ strategy plan, and I would like to wish our next President Christophe Rossell all the best as he takes over. And if you wish to know what I am up to now that I am no longer EPS President, just follow me on @johnmdudley.