Sunday, December 11, 2011

Celebrating Three Years

Three years ago today, I started this blog, Complexity Simplified, and put up my first post, which was pretty weak. It basically said, "Here is my new blog and I will be posting some stuff soon!"

Not the strongest start, perhaps, but I did start posting stuff soon, including a post about this fractal vegetable, Romanesco broccoli, along with an explanation: Fractals in Nature. That post is one of the most viewed on my site, coming in third after a post about Haiti (more on that below) and a post on The Emergent System.

I suppose a lot of people start their blogs the same way. It takes awhile to decide to even start a blog, and most people who don't blog think the design and layout is going to be the hard part. I, like many other bloggers, learned very quickly that the design was easy -- it was the content that was challenging, especially the ever-present need to create new posts and keep it interesting.

I, of course, find all the topics I post about here interesting, but I sometimes wonder if my wide range of interests has left people wondering just what this blog is about. In one sense, this is a science blog. I am a scientist, after all, and a true geek, as nerdy as they come, so any blog I wrote would have to be about science at some level. And it would be about complex systems science, of course, since that's what I have worked on my entire 30+ year career.

But I've posted here about other things: religion and science is one major topic. I also have reviewed books (many on science, religion or books comparing the two), posted a lot of photos as a participant in the Wordless Wednesday endeavor, and posted lots of other random posts about something that just happened to be on my mind that week.

So, feeling a little nostalgic today, I've spent some time going back through all the 178 posts I've made over the last three years and working with Google Analytics to see if there was any consistent pattern in reader response to posts about different topics. I guess I really am an incurable scientist, because my first thought was to look at the data and see if there were any patterns. And there are!

By far, the most viewed post at Complexity Simplified, with nearly 5000 views, is one posted January 16, 2010, a few days after the massive earthquake in Haiti. Entitled Haiti: Not a Natural Disaster this post starts with the sentence "Scientists who study disasters agree that this week's earthquake in Haiti was not a natural disaster but, rather, a man-made one."

The Haiti post goes on to provide links to studies that back up this statement. The upshot of this post is that although the earthquake was, indeed, massive, economic and social factors are to blame for the catastrophic nature of the event. People are still viewing this post on a regular basis, nearly two years after I wrote it.

The second most-viewed post, an explanation of The Emergent System, was really not viewed very much at all until a writer at linked to it in a widely-read post about a column in the New York Times. Other posts that week, about using complex systems theory to understand the spread of swine flu, were widely read, so I found it odd that this more "academic" post was suddenly capturing people's attention. I saw views of the page spike but didn't know why until a friend on Twitter pointed the BigThink article out to me. All this just goes to show what we all probably already knew: the power of personal recommendation should never be underestimated.

The Haiti post tied with another post, a personal reminiscence about the influence Madeline L'Engle's book "A Wrinkle in Time" had on my development as a scientist, for number of comments. Very different posts, but both clearly touched a nerve with readers.

Two posts were also tied for second in commenting. The first, a post written shortly after the catastrophic tsunami in Japan when people in the US were needlessly freaking out about radiation, is entitled "What you need to know about potassium iodide." A provocative topic for sure, as was the post with the same number of comments: "What Do Scientists Believe?" which was a book review of Elaine Howard Ecklund's book of the same title about the religious beliefs of scientists.

So, my conclusion from this admittedly non-scientific study of the analytic data on my blog, is that topics that tie to the news get the most views. This actually runs counter to advice I've seen other bloggers make: they say that adding one more voice to the large number of voices blogging about a topic is not the way to get noticed. That doesn't seem to be true in the case of Complexity Simplified, but I think I know why.

I think people are interested in reading about a view of the day's news that emphasizes the complex nature of the systems that underlie the events that we are all trying so hard to understand. People want to know how to prevent another catastrophe like the one in Haiti. They want to know as much as they possibly can about the pandemic they've read about in the news or the radiation advancing toward them across the ocean, because they need information to know how to protect themselves and their family.

I believe that complex systems science has much to offer the world in coping with and understanding these types of situations, so I have been happy to share what I know. And I look forward to the next three years of blogging about this topic that I cannot imagine I will ever lose interest in.


  1. Your blog has come a long way .. good job!

  2. Interesting look-back at the progress of your blog. It makes me think about my first year blogging and how I can improve in 2012. Thanks for your leadership!