The Power of Twitter #1

2009 has been a pretty exciting year for me, and one of the things that seems to link a lot of the good fortune and brilliant people that I’ve come across this year, is Twitter.

I know that some people see it as a fad and others plain don’t “get it”. I didn’t get it at first. My friends are very early adopters, but I didn’t see the point. “I don’t care where you are” I said, “I can find out from Facebook if it’s important”. To be honest, I’m almost glad I didn’t join back then. Sure I’d have the kudos of being “one of the first”, but there would have been so few people on there that I knew, that it probably wouldn’t have worked out for me back then.

What I’m saying is that I know what it is like to “not get” Twitter, and I can see why people might be sceptical, but what I hope to offer are a few real-life examples of the power of Twitter. I’m not talking big schmaltzy PR campaigns and celebrities, these are just a few things that I’ve experienced, that I’d like to share.

Can anyone teach me about quantum computing in exchange for beer?

I’m a freelance radio producer/broadcast journalist and I’ve got a penchant for sciencey stuff. On this basis, I packed myself off to Barcelona last year to attend ESOF (link?) – the Euroscience Open Forum to go and meet some new people, learn some new things, and to push me a step closer towards my ambition of becoming a science correspondent one day. One of the people I met there was the charismatic editor of Cosmos (Australia’s number 1 science magazine), Wilson da Silva. We kept in touch, he helped blag me into a posh do at an event in London and some months later I received a rather mysterious email from him. To cut a long story short, he was presenting some ‘Science in the Pub’ sessions at a physics festival and he needed a producer. In a month. In Canada.

I of course said “yes” and the flights were booked. It was at about this time that I realised that our speakers were world-class and the topics, though being discussed in a pub were not exactly child’s-play. I should point out that despite holding a science degree, I don’t even have A-level physics and this wasn’t just any old physics festival, this was the Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics’s Quantum to Cosmos Festival.

Now whilst I was reasonably happy to bluff my way on the LHC and fusion physics, quantum computing was completely outside my realm of knowledge. How was I going to write incisive questions on the subject when I wasn’t entirely sure what it actually was? I basically had a week to learn the physics of quantum computing. Owch.

In a fit of desperation/stroke of genius, I reached out to Twitter and I tweeted the following message:

“How does one go about finding a physics-flavour geek who is happy to talk quantum computing in exchange for beer? Anyone?

It was a bit of a joke really, but an example of a time when I thought “you never know”. Within minutes it had been retweeted by several other people and I had a reply from someone in Germany who although not a pro, was an awful lot more clued-up on the topic than I was. We exchanged a few emails, several more people got in touch and gave me suggestions of who I should talk to. A Guardian press officer (the lovely @hayjane) even dropped me a line offering up her brother, a physics PhD holder who teaches physics – perfect! The icing on the cake for me, was when I received a message from @silenttypewriter asking what level of knowledge I needed. I didn’t know who he was but checked his bio, only to discover that he is the senior editor of Nature Physics. Wow.

So there’s me, sitting round on a Sunday afternoon panicking about what a fool I’m going to look in front of some of the world’s leading experts in a subject and within hours, I’ve got several offers of help to save me from sheer humiliation. Amazing.

The senior editor of Nature Physics. Got in touch. With me. Now that’s an example of Twitter breaking down barriers if ever I saw one. Just incredible.

In case you’re wondering, the outcome of this little tale is that after a pint and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps with @hayjane’s brother Alex, I was armed with a basic understanding of the potential of quantum computing, a diagram explaining Shor’s algorithm and I was all set to face the physcists. After a couple of days in Waterloo, Ontario, I was cracking (lame) quantum physics jokes with the best of them. Had it not been for some amazing people on Twitter answering my very specific cry for help, I’d probably still be trying to find my way out of a thick and imposing text-book on superposition.

So there you go. Example number one. Twitter helped teach me Quantum Physics.

One thought on “The Power of Twitter #1

  1. Just stumbled across your blog! Welcome to the blogosphere – much better than Twitterdom!

    Seriously though, I very much relate to your initial scepticism towards Twitter as I was dead against it. I am, however, a tentative convert. I’ve yet to achieve the sorts of unusual connection successes you’ve listed but it is useful way to spread the word about whatever’s on your mind.

    Really enjoying your other posts so far, too.

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