Moving Day

Welcome to the Loom. I’d like to use my first post here to introduce myself and my blog, as I set up camp at National Geographic.

My relationship with National Geographic goes way back–back to a prehistoric era when I didn’t even know what blogs were. My first story for the magazine appeared in 2001. It was an exploration of the ways scientists figure out how old things are–the universe, the Earth, the animal kingdom, our own species. It was the first article I wrote as a freelance writer, having just left Discover, where I had been on staff for ten years. I’m forever grateful to National Geographic for welcoming me into the uncertain world of freelance journalism with journeys to mountaintop observatories and to the oldest patches of Earth still exposed on the planet’s surface.

Since then, I’ve written more stories for National Geographic, on topics ranging from Venus fly traps to feathers to brains. (I’m working on a couple now that I’m particularly excited about, but more on those in good time.) I also started regularly contributing pieces to the New York Times, where I still write frequently. (I’ve won some awards for my stories.) And since 1998, I’ve written 13 books. Here is a web site with more information if you’re interested.

In 2003, I noticed that some scientists and science writers had discovered a new way to write. They had software that allowed them to update their web sites on a daily basis. I was so fascinated that I had to join the experiment, and launched a blog I called the Loom (named after my favorite passage in Moby Dick).

Over the past nine years, the Loom has served as a lab where I can experiment with topics and styles that interest me but might not work as articles for newspapers or magazines. And I can try out different formats. The first time I embedded a Youtube video, I may have actually drooled.

When I was recently invited to join National Geographic’s salon, I immediately said yes. If I had to sum up what I write about, it would be natural history–the unfolding of life on Earth (and maybe elsewhere). No magazine in the world does a better job than National Geographic at exploring the majesty of natural history, both in text and in images. I’m delighted that they now want to make blogs a part of that mission.

On this blog, I will be exploring the many forms life has taken, and is now taking. I will also ponder the big science stories that will grab the headlines. In some cases, what really matters are the headlines themselves–in other words, the fate of science in the public square. I am a sworn enemy of sensationalistic distortions of science, along with science denialism in its many forms. I use the Loom to call them out. I also use the Loom to explore the utterly unexpected–such as the astonishing prevalance of science tattoos on scientists. (In 2011 I turned that particular line of blog posts into a book.)

If you use RSS to keep up with new blog posts, here’s my feed. Along with my new posts, National Geographic has kindly archived the nine-year archive of the Loom. If you are new to this blog, let me direct you to a few representative posts.

As you’ll see from these posts, the comment threads on the Loom can sometimes get pretty intense. This is a conscious decision on my part. Writing about science can mean triggering intense reactions in readers–whether the subject is evolution, the biology of the brain, global warming, or genetic engineering. I think readers should feel free to express those reactions–within reason–on my blog.

I actually find many of these comments useful to my own work. Sometimes people fact-check me and show me where I’ve made a mistake. Other times, they point me to a line of research that’s new to me. I’ve actually ended up writing magazine articles based on those helpful suggestions. (There is no copy-editor looking at this blog, so I appreciate notes about typos, which I will remedy quickly.)

This policy sometimes causes distress to some readers. I’ve gotten messages from people who think I shouldn’t allow any creationists to comment, for example. I completely disagree. If people want to leave posts disputing that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, I see no harm in letting them do so. I will, however, respond by explaning why they’re wrong. I often find that the outcome of these exchanges is useful, if only as an opportunity to explore what science actually tells us, and what it doesn’t.

Besides, you know who won’t let you leave comments on their posts? Creationists. That should tell you something.

While the comments can get rough and tumble, I also expect people to behave. Even if you recognize that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, that’s no excuse to use an obscenity on this blog against someone who doesn’t. If you make your point once, you don’t get to make it a hundred times, in the hopes of getting in the last word. If I write about global warming, you don’t get to make fun of Al Gore’s weight. If you accuse commenters or me of being a Nazi, or brain-damaged, or what have you, you are not welcome here. (National Geographic has additional rules about comments which you can find here.)

I can attest from personal experience that moving a blog always involves a lot of little technical glitches that take a while to eliminate. The folks at National Geographic and I are addressing them right now and will continue to do so for the next few weeks. Please bear with us during the transition, and please leave a comment on this post to let me know of any problem you encounter.