Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Best Science Resources on the Internet

In the last few months I've had a number of people ask me how I keep finding content to write about and how I do research for the articles I write. Coming up with ideas is the most difficult of managing a blog that posts new articles 4-6 times a week, but researching them is actually pretty simple. I'd like to share with you what I think are the best science resources on the internet.

#1 - Google
There's a reason this is #1 on my list, and I don't think I can stress the importance of this one enough. Most of the things I write on require very little original thought. The answers are out there already. In some cases you do need to find multiple sources or risk being unreliable (which has happened to me in the past). You also need some critical thinking skills to weed out which websites are good and which ones aren't. That might be a good idea for me to write about later, actually - How to  know what you can trust on the internet.

#2 - Wolfram Alpha
Mathematica is a pretty intense program that's useful for solving integrals. This means it has lots of applications in research and advanced math. Unfortunately the programming language isn't always intuitive and it's not a free program.

Wofram Alpha is an online program by the same company as Mathematica. It's very intuitive and even better it's completely free. If you want to integrate some function, just type the words into Wolfram and you'll get an answer in no time. Wolfram Alpha isn't just about math, though, there are lots of other cool features covering just about any topic you could imagine. Here's my tip: If you're looking for a website use Google if you just have a question (like "How many people die in plane crashes every year?") use Wolfram Alpha. There is a limit to the processor time allowed, though, so if you need to do a large calculation you'll need to either find a new program or pay for some of the premium features. If you're using Chrome Wolfram Alpha is even better - there's a great Chrome extension that lets you search wolfram alpha directly from any website.

#3 - Twitter
This may be surprising to some, but I have found that Twitter is a great source for science news and information. Some fairly prominent scientists and science writers use twitter. The conversations you'll find taking place on Twitter range from informative to entertaining to downright ridiculous. Science news often breaks first on Twitter too - following the right people will mean staying informed on the latest science developments. Sure you're limited to 146 characters, but that's enough to get your ideas out there and include a link.

#4 - Reddit
At first glance Reddit is a website for memes, funny pictures, and cats. Upon closer inspection, though, Reddit is a great source for everything science. Reddit is an online aggregation website. A "one stop shopping" of the internet. What makes Reddit great is the ability to customize the things you see and which communities you want be in. The site is divided into many, many subreddits - communities of people that add links to and discuss things they are interested in. Some of the better science related subreddits are:

  • Askscience - A panel of verified and qualified scientists (including yours truly) are asked questions about science. The mods of askscience are notoriously picky about the answers given. They must be 100% backed by science without any layman speculation. This is a great subreddit because anyone can ask questions and be guaranteed an answer by an expert in that field.
  • Science - Links here lead to peer-reviewed science articles. In fact, a pretty strict rule requires that any links provided must be peer-reviewed or will be deleted
  • Asksciencediscussion - This is similar to askscience, but the rules about speculation aren't as strong. Layman speculation and off topic discussion is encouraged.
  • Others - There is a subreddit for just about any science field - Chemistry, physics, biology. Sometimes they're a little hard to find though. This website lets you search for subreddits by subject a little faster. Just be careful, reddit is the internet and everything that comes with it...

#5 - Universe Sandbox
This isn't exactly an online resource, but I couldn't pass the opportunity to tell you about this great program. Universe Sandbox is a planetary simulator that lets god with the universe. In your sandbox you can modify the physical properties (mass, size, etc) of any planetary body. You can study the planets, moons, and asteroids in our solar system or simulate the collision of two galaxies.  Have you ever wondered what would happen if the sun were half the size it is now? Just change the mass of the sun and watch what happens. Want to watch an asteroid impact or see the moons of Saturn? Just start the simulation.

Universe Sandbox does cost $19.99, but it's worth it. The program is very easy to use and you don't have to know the physics involved to watch them happen. To get you hooked, or if I haven't quite convinced you to get it, you can download a premium version of the program to try free for 60 minutes here.

#6 - Quackwatch
Quackwatch is a great website to help you weed out science vs. pseudoscience. The website itself is not exactly user friendly (here's a tip, if you need a section called "how to navigate this site" you're doing something wrong), but the information contained is extremely valuable. You can find information on just about any health related topic from acupuncture to weight control. There is also a list of "doctors" not to trust (like Oprah's Dr. Oz), questionable websites, trusted websites, and links to legal help related to health quakery. If you ever come upon a health fad, treatment, or theory, check out quackwatch to see what science has to say about it.

#7 - Museum websites
Many museums have realized the potential to expand their exhibits using the internet. The Exploratorium, based in San Francisco, is just one of the museums to have online, interactive exhibits. Although no substitute for a good ol' fashion trip to the museum, these exhibits are fun for any age. Many of the exhibits that require a hands on demonstration provide an "at home" version that you can do. The Exploratorium is just museum with online exhibits, though. Use science resource #1 on this list to find more.

#8 - Journal Aggregators
The Map of Science. This shows the flow of science manuscripts
Peer reviewed journals are the backbone of science, but sometimes knowing where to find an article on a particular subject can be tricky. For any one subject there are likely hundreds to thousands of journals with hundreds of new articles published every month. If you're wondering what peer reviewed literature has been published on the health benefits of orange oil you won't find a journal named "Journal for the Health Benefits of Orange Oil Society of America". But searching an aggregator for key words will help you find the articles you need. Another benefit is that the right aggregator will weed out some of the pseudoscience. Some of it, but not all of it.

Some of the more popular aggregators that I use most often are PubMed, Web of Knowledge, and SciFinder. Unfortunately, finding the article isn't even half of the work. You'll still need to get access (which is easy if you have university access) and make sense of the article - which is often full of jargon.

#9 - MIT OpenCourseware/iTunesU
Even 5 years ago if you wanted to see a university lecture you really only had one option. Go to the university lecture. This isn't really the case anymore. There are now thousands of lectures on hundreds of topics from reputable sources - all available to you online. There is really no reason to be uneducated. The iTunes store is great because you can watch just about any lecture you want. MIT has taken it a step further and included lecture notes, homework sets, and exams. There's really no reason you shouldn't be taking a class from MIT right now (on second thought, finish reading this list before you go take a class on ordinary differential equations or astronomy or biology or evolution or computer programming or...).

#10 - Podcasts
If you know me at all, you'll know that I almost always have my iPod with me - however I rarely listen to music anymore. Most of my time is spent listening to podcasts. I won't say much about these right now, as I'm sure I'll be doing a review of each one of these in the future, but my favorite science podcasts are:

  • Skeptoid
  • The Naked Scientists
  • The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe
  • Science Talk
  • Star Talk

#13 - Evolution 101
The University of California - Berkely has put together a great online resource for understanding evolution. If you're looking for a basic introduction to evolution I highly recommend this website. Whether you've never studied evolution, need a refresh on some key concepts, or just want to know more Evolution 101 is a good place to start looking. I suppose there's nothing special in particular about this exact website, but I wanted to include a website that had very fundamental information explaining evolution and this is the best one I know.

#14 - Wikipedia
I'll end my list with one of the greatest science resources on the internet. Searching Google for any popular subject will almost certainly give you Wikipedia as a top result. Some say that Wikipedia isn't a reliable source - mostly because anyone can edit it. Most of the real criticisms I had for Wikipedia went away as it became more and more popular. As more people edit and take ownership of articles on Wikipedia (requiring sources, removing speculation, etc) the cream seems to rise to the top. Wikipedia is just like any other source - on the internet or not. You should never depend on one source as the absolute truth.

Some of my favorite ways to waste time involve Wikipedia. For example, choose two unrelated topics. Start on the page for the first topic and try to navigate your way through Wikipedia to the second (using only links inside of articles). There are a couple ways to play this game. You can either time yourself or count the number of link clicks it took you to get from A to B. Challenge your friends to WikiRace today. You won't regret it (if you have the right kind of friends).