Every Quanta article, video and podcast has its own backstory. By the time it arrives on your screen, our staff has nurtured it through weeks (and sometimes months) of careful work: research, reporting, writing, editing, art direction, animation, filming, recording, fact-checking, copy editing and web production. Then it’s my turn.
My job is to engage with Quanta’s audience and facilitate engagement within our online community. In carrying out this work, I want to know: Who are you? How did you find us? What are you looking to learn and what did you take away from what you found here? On an internet that can at times feel equal parts overwhelming and draining, this digital magazine aims to provide a quiet, information-rich spot where you can consider the immense complexity of our world. I’m here to get our work in front of you using language that helps you know what to expect. And when you tell us what you think, I’m here to listen.
In 2022, Quanta received more than 3,300 comments on our website. We received tens of thousands of pieces of feedback through our social media accounts, email inbox, YouTube channel and podcast reviews. The vast majority were positive (thank you!), a few pointed out possible errors to correct (thank you again), and many chimed in with additional thoughts, criticism and feedback.
Looking back at the comments we received this year, I identified a few themes. Much of the time, we received follow-up questions that invited helpful responses from experts and other readers. Not surprisingly, people also love to debate unsettled science and crack jokes when they can. And it’s evident that our audience is not a monolith tied to any professional, educational or age demographic. Researchers and academics regularly weigh in, but we’re just as likely to hear from casual enthusiasts who start their comment with “I’m no expert.” This is the Quanta community at its best, where anyone can take in the logic of our world, grapple with its mystery and learn from its inhabitants.
Out of the many thoughtful questions and comments submitted this year, I’ve chosen a few of my favorites (lightly copy edited for clarity) that exemplified these themes.
A Little Help, Please
Questions abound in Quanta’s comments section — and from time to time, helpful experts drop by to answer them. Last summer, we wrote about two mathematicians who proved a decades-old conjecture about complex surfaces using ideas borrowed from graph theory. In a comment on Leila Sloman’s article about the proof, the mathematician Ian Agol shared a memory:
Kudos to them — I recall having a discussion about this question with [the late Fields medalist] Maryam Mirzakhani at IAS [the Institute for Advanced Study] in 2015. She was interested in this problem.
A reader who frequently comments under the username Dabed followed up with a question about how the problem connects to Mirzakhani’s work, and Agol promptly provided a detailed answer. It’s good to know that, although Mirzakhani is sadly no longer here to draw these connections herself, those who knew her are willing to do so.
Unless deleted by their author, approved comments live on with an article forever. If a new reader discovers the article years later, those old comments serve as a kind of time capsule preserving conversations and reactions from the time of publication. Quanta’s 2018 interview with the mathematician and computer scientist Gil Kalai, who “believes that quantum computers can’t possibly work, even in principle,” attracted numerous questions and critical comments from readers more optimistic about the technology. Kalai fielded several questions in the comments section soon after publication. The following year, the physicist Christopher Monroe submitted a cordial comment disputing the idea that “all classes of physical systems will suffer from correlated noise at the same level.” Kalai thanked Monroe for his comment, adding, “Let me think about it before answering in some detail.” Kalai returned in May of this year to enter his detailed 2019 email responses to Monroe into the record. While disagreements in science are common, it’s wonderful when they lead to high-level exchanges that deepen our understanding and add value to our online community.
Science Is Funny
Don’t let anyone tell you that science and math aren’t fun. This year, I slipped references to Talking Heads and Queen into our social copy, and there were times when the opportunity to make a pun was just too good to pass up. But the best laughs came from our readers.
The cartoonist CM Evans gifted the comments section several times this year with web comics inspired by our articles. Whether the subject is cryptography, origin-of-life theories or fluid dynamics, this is one well-read mouse:
When it comes to squaring the circle, the aptly named commenter youngryman proposed a scrumptious-sounding, albeit geometrically infeasible, solution: “I do it with pizza dough.”
The Joy of Asking Questions
Quanta’s audience is an inquisitive bunch. On our newest podcast, The Joy of Why, the mathematician and host Steven Strogatz also delights in asking questions big and small, guided by his curiosity. One listener named Rob emailed Quanta this note of appreciation:
I am quite scientifically literate, despite not being a scientist, and I think it’s great that the podcast speaks to people like me. I really get the sense that the host is sharing stories he finds fascinating, rather than trying to teach people to appreciate science more. His passion and curiosity really come through in the stories and they’re infectious.
Given the intellectually provocative questions at the heart of these episodes, it’s not surprising that comments on the podcast transcripts often lead to rich debate and further questions: Does anti-aging research chase an impossible goal? What’s missing from our definition of life? What did Steven Weinberg have to say about quantum field theory? The joy is in the asking.
The Dialogue Between Disciplines
Much of Quanta’s science coverage is interdisciplinary in nature. And that pulls in readers and viewers with diverse backgrounds and interests. Nowhere is this more evident than in the comments posted below our YouTube videos. One of the most commented-on videos this year focused on the multifaceted career of Leslie Lamport, a Turing Award-winning computer scientist. Viewers especially appreciated the way Lamport described the dialogue between disciplines and skills.
One of the markers of true genius is thinking in an interdisciplinary fashion, in my opinion. This man has demonstrated in only this short time that he has knowledge of art, mathematics, and physics. It’s no surprise he contributed to our world in the way he has.
— YouTube user wido461
These are just a few examples of the probing, funny, helpful exchanges that happen daily in Quanta’s comments sections and on social media. The next time one of our articles, podcasts or videos gets you thinking, submit a comment, and check back once in a while to see what others have to say. Perhaps we can learn from each other — or, at the very least, make each other laugh.