Happy Birthday Wikipedia!

Not a lot of people – well, probably quite a lot of people actually – know that it was twenty years ago today, on January 15th 2001, that Wikipedia first went online. I know this is true as I read it on Wikipedia:

Wikipedia was launched on January 15, 2001, by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. Sanger coined its name as a portmanteau of “wiki” and “encyclopedia”.

I don’t remember the launch of Wikipedia itself but I do recall when students started using Wikipedia links in project reports and the like. Unfortunately at the beginning many of the articles on scientific topics were very poor – often laughably so – and I discouraged students from using them. Now, twenty years and the efforts of many volunteer editors later, they are generally very good. I now encourage students to use Wikipedia as a resource, but I still discourage them from including references to it in formal reports. The best way to use it is to get an overview but then dig down into the references which most articles lists.

I find Wikipedia an excellent resource for things outside science of course, especially music, and link to articles there very often from this blog.

Somewhere along the line somebody even set up a Wikipedia page about me. It began as “just a stub” but has been updated from time to time. I don’t know who set it up or who has updated it, but it’s now a bit out of date. It still says that I work part-time between Cardiff and Maynooth, for example. No doubt someone will fix this at some point.

I’ve edited a few articles there myself, actually, mostly on cosmology but also on Jazz. Some of my blog posts are linked from there too but it would seem inappropriate for me to edit my own Wikipedia page.

Anyway, if you’re a fan of Wikipedia then please consider making a donation.

Update: it seems that the elves have been at work already and my Wikipedia page has been partially updated. It still says I live in Cardiff, however…

13 Responses to “Happy Birthday Wikipedia!”

  1. Yes, I find wikipedia a suprisingly useful source for both physics and the history of physics , especially in terms of references, and equally useful for general knowledge. I was depressed to discover that many conservative-mineded people read something called Conservapedia.

    • There are many pedias out there.

      Wikipedia is generally OK if the topics are not controversial.

    • John Peacock Says:

      Cormack: I wish I hadn’t read your comment. I just looked at Conservapedia, and it left me depressed beyond belief. Never mind the political rants – see what it says about the age of the Earth, for example. Presumably there’s also a page on 2+2=5. I’m at a loss to imagine what to say to people who adhere to this stuff.

      • Reminds me of a cartoon I saw years ago. A bloke is sitting at the computer and his wife comes in and asks him when he is coming to bed. He says: Wait a minute. Something is WRONG on the internet. 😐

      • telescoper Says:

        If you look at that you’ll find it easier to understand the Trump phenomenon.

  2. John Peacock Says:

    I agree that the progress in Wikipedia has been remarkable: every time I read an article on something I actually know about, it tends to be accurate in detail. But this is becoming a problem: people keep adding to articles to the point where they reach a technical level that makes them inaccessible to the average reader. There was a period where I found Wikipedia helpful for bits of mathematical technology where I was unsure of definitions – but of late I keep seeming to come across articles designed for professional mathematicians, which this mere physics prof struggles to follow. Similar problems in physics. I’m lecturing GR to 4th & 5th year physics undergraduates at the moment, and yet if you look up various key GR terms in wikipedia you will find a treatment that is at a higher formal level than in the notes I’m delivering to my students. This can’t be right. What’s needed in Wikipedia (as in teaching material) is a hierarchical structure where you explain the basic idea intuitively using informal language, and then gradually raise the temperature. Wikipedia has lots of rules where moderators complain about lack of referencing, but I don’t see any “you need a PhD in the subject to understand the first sentence of this article”. Of course, there’s nothing to stop you and me editing in more basic introductions, but there’s a natural tendency to devote limited editing time to correcting technical errors or adding material. So I only see this problem getting worse. Maybe they should add an option like Google streetview: show me this article as it was N years ago, before it got “improved”.

    • telescoper Says:

      I agree. The physics resources are generally fairly accessible but many of the mathematical ones are extremely technical. Some are marked as such but obviously there aren’t enough people out there to write gentler introductions!

      It would be useful to have specific pages for, say, general audience, pre-University, UG and PG level on certain subjects.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Mathematicians write up their work in a ridiculous fashion. GH Hardy wrote pure maths very clearly indeed and I do not believe that the modern mode of mathematical writing is necessary for advances made since his time.

  3. Yes, I very much agree with JP’s comment. I’ve often wondered if the template of pages could be changed so that technical stuff is hived off to one section at the bottom, not dispersed throughout the page.

    • There is already the feature that something can be hidden with a click-to-expand note. It is usually used for other things, but one could use it to hide technical details then have them expanded at will by the reader. Of course, when all are collapsed, what is left should still be a good introductory article.

    • The idea is that the introduction/lead section summarises the topic in an easy-to-understand way, and then the article gets progressively more complicated as you go down it – the same as a scientific review article does. That doesn’t always happen in practice, though.

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