Interview with PD Dr. Helmut Wicht

A prize for blogging

PD Dr. Helmut Wicht writes neuroscientific articles for a web blog, a journal on a website that is accessible to everyone. Wicht's blogs in his Anatomical Assortment (Anatomischen Allerlei) are both pithy and sound. For this he has received the first Scilogs Prize for scientific blogs, making Wicht one of the pioneers among blogging scientists.

In an interview with our ICNF Newsletter editor Nicola A. Mögel, Helmut Wicht describes his philosophical-literary links to neurosciences on the Internet.

The interview took place on June 19, 2008.

Editor: Dr. Wicht, what is this blogging all about?

Wicht: First, I have to go back a bit. The "Spektrum der Wissenschaften" publishing group has been established on the Internet for a while. About nine months ago the publishers created a website called Scilogs (www.scilogs.de).  Scilogs are blogs on various scientific themes from brain research, history of science, physics or general scientific fields. Here, a good fifty authors write articles. Some are journalists, but most of them are scientists. The subject matter swings between scientific journalism, scientific satire and the latest research from the lab.

My blog is called Anatomic Assortment (Anatomischen Allerlei) and has the subtitile: Headless Footnotes. The blog can be found at www.brainlogs.de/blogs/blog/anatomisches-allerlei or simply by googling the keyword "Anatomisches Allerlei". The blog is one of thirteen included on the website under the category Brainlogs. Here, I write about everything I find interesting. Often it is quite philosophical and literary – after all literature has something to do with the brain, or at least it should have …

Ed.: You were awarded the Scilogs Prize in March of this year. What kind of distinction is this?

Wicht: In late spring the Scilogs Prize winner was chosen from among all the bloggers. External referees submitted their views on the individual blogs. Björn Schwentker, science editor of the online version of the weekly magazine "Die Zeit" suggested me as one of the prize winners. In total four blogs – including my blog –  were nominated for the prize. At a meeting of all the Scilogs bloggers it was internally decided among the bloggers who should receive the first prize. The vote went to me. The prize can be considered symbolic. It was an opulent food hamper from the Pfalz region with lots of bottles of wine and tins of "Saumagen".

Ed.: How did you start blogging?

Wicht: I was invited to take part by Spektrum. Scilogs is one of the two largest scientific blog portals in Germany. A equally large portal (ScienceBlogs) is run by the Burda publishers. The Scilogs portal has editorial support – but is not edited – simply to ensure journalistic standards. And money is not involved. The blogger is driven by the desire to communicate and by vanity. For me at least. And the blogs live on comments and discussions about individual entries: anyone can make comments.

What I write there, however, rarely has anything to do with my current research. I carry out comparative head anatomy on headless fish – this is of little interest to anybody in this blog. Actually, it doesn't really interest the referees of scientific journals…

In my blog I write on a meta-level like in a scientific feature article. I write scurrilous scientific comments and, as I must admit, more and more scientific satire and sarcasm. And often enough I am seized with anti-naturalistic feelings, then I hang too far out of the window and receive from my commentators – often scientific experts – a slap on the face. Blogging is very instructive.

In the speech at the prize presentation my contributions were particularly praised for their wording and literary value. Schwentker's justification for recommending my blog was that I provide "glimpses into the thought processes of a researcher in an elegant philosophical manner".

Ed.: Are you at home with literature?

Wicht: Not due to my education. This came with Wichts Corner (Wichts Winkel). On the Internet at www.gehirn-und-geist.de, this is a once monthly online column that gives "answers to questions that nobody has asked". It is a collection of neuroscientific short stories. The Spektrum publishers described me on this Internet site as an "anatomy entertainer". Oh well,… the strict, objective life scientist may find it distasteful. But I am more concerned about presenting things in the neurosciences exactly as they are, but also to embelish these with associations that unfortunately normal academic teaching no longer has room for. I try to inject aesthetics into science – in the hope of returning a dimension to science that it always had, but has increasingly disowned, and in the hope of leading ordinary people to it.

With the writing itself, I started a good 10 years ago. My first theme was motorbikes, and also in those days the Internet – the Usenet, to be precise – was my playground. Here, there were, and still are news groups (forums) on every possible subject. I wrote in a motorbike forum, since I love riding and tinkering with motorcycles. In the beginning, the forum was very technically oriented. But within a few years a few like-minded souls and my self managed to change it into a literary forum. Well a hybrid… into a forum that was also literary. The forum received travel reports, poems, short stories and toolbox tales. Not only elegant mechanics – but also elegantly described. With these texts I let myself write freely and noticed that I can.

The great thing about the net is the instant quality control. If you write something and nothing happens afterwards, then either you are in the wrong forum or you have written rubbish. If it goes well, then come friendly replicas, or even better, the stuff is stolen by copy and paste and pops up somewhere else. Later, in 2005 a publisher came and put together an inexpensive little book from my collected humorous tales, it's called "Schräglagen und Wehklagen".

Since then I have turned my hobby, writing, into part of my career. At the Deaconate of the Medical faculty, together with my wife, I take care of PR and academic celebrations and work on the speeches for such events.

Ed.: Thank you very much for our discussion and I wish you lots of fun with your blogging and lyrical writing.

Wicht: "Thank you!" said the scoundrel (Wicht).

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