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Blog

Paul Ginsparg reveals mystery blogger

By Matin Durrani

Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event. (CC BY Fred Benenson)

It’s surprising the little nuggets of information that come our way here in the Physics World office.

A couple of weeks back, for example, we received an e-mail from Paul Ginsparg, the Cornell University physicist who set up the now-ubiquitous arXiv preprint server more than 20 years ago.

Ginsparg had written a great article for us back in 2008, when Physics World celebrated its 20th anniversary, in which he reflected on the early days of the Web and examined how it has changed scientific communication.

At one point in that article, Ginsparg discussed the growing influence of blogs, describing how he watched someone at a scientific seminar blogging with seemingly expert ease.

“Glancing over my shoulder”, Ginsparg wrote, “I was struck by how a native laptop-user can navigate text and search windows faster than the eye can follow, and assemble references, photos and graphics from multiple sources, simultaneously replying to comments, and in the end spending far less time to assemble a set of useful pedagogic pages, accessible to the entire world, than I spend writing problem-set solutions for a small class.”

Ginsparg did not realize at the time who the person in question was, but he has now discovered that the mystery blogger was in fact the Internet activist and open-access advocate Aaron Swartz. Swartz had been arrested by US federal authorities in 2011 in connection with systematic downloading of journal papers form the JSTOR database and was tragically found hanged in his Brooklyn apartment on 11 January this year.

Ginsparg had been reading reports about Swartz’s death and realized, from photos of the SciFoo 2007 meeting, that Swartz was the person who had been “sitting next to me…blogging with unforgettable skill”.

“I didn’t know who he was,” Ginsparg wrote in an e-mail to me, “having missed introductions because I was going back and forth between sessions, and never did get to talk to him at all. [It was a] missed opportunity and only now I learn he was not the typical generic 20-something blogger as assumed. Oddly enough, 5.5 years later I see the precise text I’d presumably described him writing preserved here

You can read more about the meeting in this blog entry by the science writer George Dyson.

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