[lbo-talk] Pedantic Accelerator: Mojitos, Wikipedia and Science

Dwayne Monroe idoru345 at yahoo.com
Mon May 14 07:30:39 PDT 2007

One of my hobbies is following developments in solar physics because, well, we're completely dependent upon the sun. Keeping abreast of the bugger's habits and moods (for ex. coronal mass ejections) is a cracking way to spend one's time.

Plus, on a pure intellectual excitement tip, it massively kicks ass.

Recent years have been particularly exciting in this field and now that we have the Stereo A and B (Solar TErrestrial RElations Observatory) space-based robot observatories online we can look forward to major discoveries.

STEREO Mission



Over mojitos at a club some weeks ago, an interested friend asked me basic questions about what, according to current thinking, makes the sun go. Normally, I'd be revved for a proper geek out but the Royksopp remix washing over us via the sound system (Valve? someone asked...impossible) was far too loud and I was far too mood altered to do the topic justice.

"Fusion!" I shouted and smiled like a drunk ass drunk.

This sparkling insight was followed close on by "Wikipedia exists baby!"

She got the hint.

She texted me days later: "wiki sun article too techie". What? Impossible. Surely it was written for a non-specialist audience. It's Wikipedia after all. Still, she's very smart; if she says it's difficult something must be up. I browsed on over to the entry.

It starts promisingly:

The Sun, also known as Sol, is the star at the center of the Solar System. The Earth and other matter (including other planets, asteroids, meteoroids, comets and dust) orbit the Sun, which by itself accounts for about 99.8% of the solar system's mass. Energy from the Sun—in the form of sunlight—supports almost all life on Earth via photosynthesis, and drives the Earth's climate and weather.


Quickly however, the entry fearlessly dives into the deeper end of the pool, leaving trainees behind:

Its spectrum contains lines of ionized and neutral metals as well as very weak hydrogen lines. The V (Roman five) suffix indicates that the Sun, like most stars, is a main sequence star. This means that it generates its energy by nuclear fusion of hydrogen nuclei into helium and is in a state of hydrostatic balance, neither contracting nor expanding over time. There are more than 100 million G2 class stars in our galaxy. Because of logarithmic size distribution, the Sun is actually brighter than 85% of the stars in the galaxy, most of which are red dwarfs.


Ah yes, I see the problem.

I revisited several other science and technology articles I'd read in the past. Sure enough, their depth had significantly increased since I'd last checked but so had their inaccessibility to a wide audience.

Looks like an upwardly curving complexity spiral. Most Wiki detractors complain about inaccuracy, juvenalia and endless, circular pie fights over politics. All true but quite the opposite problem to what's being seen in sci-tech land where the experts are apparently in full command.

"tgoetz" of the Epidemix blog offers an explanation:


Here’s what I think is going on: On Wikipedia, contributors are expected to contribute their knowledge. But on science, there’s a oneupmanship going on, and a topic will be honed to an ever-greater level of expertise. That’s great for precision and depth, but horrible for the general user, who is often brought to Wikipedia through a top hit on Google. Clay Shirky and others have written about the “the expert problem” on Wikipedia, usually meaning the lack of expertise and a need for experts. That may be true in some contexts, but that isn’t the problem I’m talking about. That complaint is that Wikipedia needs experts to bring entries up to snuff; I’m more concerned about bringing entries down to a level that’s actually clear and useful for the layman.


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