‘Lots of people don’t know lots of things’

You might have seen news channels on the television (if you do at all, in fact) flash a piece of information repeatedly on their screens. News presenters also tend to repeat things they’ve said 10 or 15 minutes before and on-screen visuals join in this marquee exercise. I remember being told in journalism school that this is done so people who have tuned in shortly after a piece of news has been ‘announced’ to catch up quickly. So say some news item is broken at 8 pm; I can tune in at 8.10 pm and be all caught up by 8.15 pm.

Of course, this has become a vestigial practice in the age of internet archiving technologies and platforms like Facebook and Google ‘remembering’ information forever, but would’ve been quite useful in a time when TV played a dominant role in information dissemination (and when news channels weren’t going bonkers with their visuals).

I wonder if this ’15 minutes’ guideline – rather a time-based offset in general – applies to reporting on science news. Now, while news is that which is novel, period, it’s not clear whom it’s novel for. For example, I can report on a study that says X is true. X might’ve been true for a large number of scientists, and perhaps people in a different country or region, for a long time but it may not be for the audience that I’m writing for. Would this mean X is not news?

Ultimately, it comes down to two things.

First: Lots of people don’t know lots of things. So you can report on something and it will be news for someone, somewhere. However, how much does it cost to make sure what you’ve written reaches that particular reader? Because if the cost is high, it’s not worth it. Put another way, you should regularly be covering news that has the lowest cost of distribution for your publication.

Second: Lots of people don’t know lots of things. So you can report on something and it will be news for someone, somewhere. And if the bulk of your audience is a subset of the group of people described above, then what you’re reporting will always likely be new, and thus news. As things stand, most Indians still needs to catch up on basic science. Scientists aren’t off the hook either: many of them may know the divergence of a magnetic field is always zero but attribute this statement’s numerous implications to a higher power.

So, through science journalism, there are many opportunities to teach as well as inform, particularly in that order. And a commitment to these opportunities implies that I will also be writing and publishing reports that are newsy to my readers but not to people in other parts of the world, of a different demographic, etc.

Featured image credit: mojzagrebinfo/pixabay.

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Ruins of the Sutlej avulsion paper’s coverage

Reporting on the new Indus civilisation study out of IIT-K and Imperial College London was an interesting experience because it afforded an opportunity to discover how the technical fields of sedimentology and hydrodynamics can help understand the different ways in which a civilisation can grow. And also how “fluviodeltaic morphodynamics” just rolls off the tongue.

In my report for The Wire, however, I stuck to the science for the most part because that in itself offered a lot to discover (and because you know I’m biased). For example, how the atomic lattices of quartz and feldspar played an important part in identifying that the Sutlej river had formerly occupied the Ghaggar-Hakra palaeochannel.

Audience response to the reports were also along expected lines:

  • a fifth read it quietly, without much fanfare, asking polite questions (without notifying the authors, however) about various claims made in the article;
  • some two-fifths went to town with it, calling the Hindutva brigade’s search for the Saraswati a lost cause; and
  • another two-fifths also went to town with it, calling out The Wire‘s attempt to ‘disparage’ the Saraswati misguided.

I’ll leave you to judge for yourself.

What was not along expected lines, however, was international coverage of the study. The BBC’s and Axios‘s headline on the topic were the following (in order): River departed ‘before Indus civilisation emergence’ and Indus Valley civilization may have arisen without a river. The Axios headline is just wrong. The BBC headline is fine but its article is wrong, stating:

The Indus society came to prominence in what is now northwest India and Pakistan some 5,300 years ago thanks in large part to the sustenance of a long-lost Himalayan river.

Or so it was thought.

New evidence now indicates this great water course had actually changed its path and disappeared before the Indus people had even settled in the region.

That they lacked the resource offered by a big, actively flowing river will come as a surprise to many; the other early urban societies of the time, in Egypt and Mesopotamia, certainly benefitted in this way.

The Daily Mail had an unsurprisingly garbage headlineMysterious Indus Valley Civilisation managed to thrive without a river to provide flowing water 5,300 years ago. Newsweek‘s headline (Long-lost river discovered in the Himalayas may completely change what we know about early civilisations) and article were both sensational. Excerpt:

Scientists have found the ancient remains of the river that prove it did not exist at the same time as the Indus civilization. This means the civilization existed without a major active water source, something archaeologists did not believe was possible.

The common mistake in all these reports is that they either assume or suggest that the Indus valley civilisation was fed by one river – at least in the first half – and that the entire civilisation was centred around that river. On the contrary, the Indus valley civilisation was the largest of its time, over a million sq. km in area, and was fed by the Indus and its dozens of tributaries (only one of which was the Sutlej).

This in turn limits the extent to which claims about civilisations being able to arise without perennial sources of water can be generalised. The prominent Indus valley settlements affected by the Sutlej’s avulsion are two in number (Banawali and Kalibangan) whereas the civilisation overall hosted over 1,000 such sites and, by one estimate, almost five million people. Second: to what extent would the Indus civilisation have been possible (relative to what actually was) if all of its settlements had been fed by gentler monsoonal rivers?

So yes, the study does provide a new perspective – a new possibility, rather – on the question of what resources are necessary to form a conducive natural environment for a proto-urban human settlement. But this is not a “revolutionary” idea, as many reports would have us believe, at least because other researchers have explored it before and at most because there is little data to run with at the moment. What we do know and for sure is that the Sutlej avulsed 8,000 years ago and, about 5,000 years ago, a part of the Indus valley civilisation took root in the abandoned valley.

Further, I’m also concerned the reports might overstate what “ancient Indians” (but for some reason not “ancient Pakistanis”) could have been capable of. This is a topic that the Hindutva brigade has refurbished with alarming levels of success to imply that the world should bow down to India. Archaeological surveys of the Indus valley region could definitely do with staying away from such problems, at least as much as they can afford to, and some of the language in the sites quoted above isn’t helping.

Featured image credit: Usman.pg/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Taking the ringdown route to understanding the humans of science

What follows is an attempt to process and understand Cassandra Willyard’s post on Last Word on Nothing, about her preferring the humanised stories of science over the stories of the science itself (“Physics writers, this is how you nab the physics haters — human emotion”; my previous post on this is here). He words have been weighing on my mind – as they have been on others’ – because of the specific issues that they explored: humanising the process of science, and to be able to look at all science stories through the humanised lens. By humanising the process of science, it’s not that the science takes a backseat; instead, the centrepiece of the story is the human. Creating such stories is obviously not a problem for/to anyone. The problems come to be when, per the second issue, people start obsessing over such stories.

At this point, I’m not speaking for anyone but myself; nor is my post written in the usual upside-down pyramid style, rather the other way round. Second: I deviate significantly from Willyard’s post’s demesne because I’m just following my thoughts-current on the subject. I’m tempted to use a metaphor: that of the ringdown, the phase when two blackholes that have merged settle down into a stable, unified shape.

I

By virtue of not being about people, or humans in general, science stories without the human component are a hard-sell. Willyard’s right when she says that humans are interested in stories about other humans – but I think what she’s taking for granted here is that humans being interested only in stories about other humans is fair. It’s definitely tenable, but is it fair? The sense of fairness in this context emerges from the idea that it’s not okay for us to consume – while we’re alive the one time we are – only that which immediately affects us. Instead, we must make room for the truly wonderful, and identify and appreciate the kinds of beauty that transcend utility, that would be beautiful from all points of view and not just our own.

If such appreciation had been shared by all consumers of journalism, then producing pure-science stories would be a breeze. But in reality, it’s anything but. This is why advocating for the persistent humanisation of science is almost offensive: humanised science sells very well; it does not need a shot in the arm, nor a platform like Last Word on Nothing, to help its cause. It is an economically privileged form of science journalism that has no right to complain.

To be sure, Willyard is neither calling for the persistent humanisation of science nor is she complaining that humanised stories of science are not the norm. That said, however, I feel that she is downplaying the importance of non-humanised science stories from a very pragmatic perspective: her grounds are that they’re not emotional enough – which suggests she’s saying that emotions are important. Why? Emotions are easy to market; emotions are easy tools of interpersonal communication, especially ones that can transcend language, culture and enterprise.

A part of my indignation towards her post emerges from this endpoint: the axiomatic inference that that which lacks emotions is unimportant, and that such a suggestion disparages an entire branch of science communication that seeks to explore science without simultaneously exploring the human condition. What also contributes to my sentiment being what it is is the fact that Willyard is a science journalist – she’s one of us – and for her to make such distinctions, for her to declare such preferences without also exploring their underlying economics, feels like she’s being either myopic or selfish.

(I must clarify that though I’ve used big words like ‘selfish’, I’m feeling them in a more diluted form.)

II

Humanised science is almost populist as well. In India, many newsrooms publish such stories without having to call it science, and they don’t. They’re disguised as ‘science and society’, ‘science policy’, ‘higher education’, ‘public administration’, etc. You, my reader, consume these kinds of science stories regularly, without having to be lured into the copy or being given extra incentives. You’re definitely interested.

… except for one small genre of the whole thing: pure science, the substrate on which all else that you’re reading about is founded, but which has over time become sidelined, ostracised into the ‘Other’, the freak show reserved for nerds and geeks, the thing which scares you without making you question that fear. (“I’m scared of math! I gave up working with numbers a long time ago.” Why the actual fuck? “No idea. I see an equation and I’m just scared.”)

The reason I’m so riled up (which I didn’t realise until I began writing this sentence – and that’s why I write this blog) was something I recently discussed with my friend O.A. at a party organised by The Wire. That was when I’d first heard about C.P. Snow’s ‘two cultures’ essay, which O.A. mentioned in the context of a spate of news reports discussing hydrological issues in agriculture.

O.A. said, “People don’t understand how water works in agriculture. I read something about someone trying to estimate how much water a crop uses in a season and then, with that information, trying to determine how much water we’re losing across our borders when we export that crop to other countries. The whole method is so stupid.” (This conversation happened a few months ago, so I’m rephrasing/paraphrasing.)

It really is stupid: evaluating agriculture – even when at the level of a single crop sown in one reason in a single acre of land – in terms of just one of the resources it utilises makes no sense. Moreover, the water used to grow a crop does not rest in the produce; it seeps into the soil, runs off, evaporates, it reenters our local ecosystems in so many ways. What made this ‘analysis’ stupider was that (a) it appeared in a leading business daily and (b) the analyst was a senior bureaucrat of some kind.

O.A. went on to describe a fundamental disconnection between the language of India’s policymakers and the language of India’s farmers and labourers, a disconnection he said was only symptomatic of the former’s broad-brushstroke ideas being so far removed from the material substance of the enterprises they were responsible for regulating. He then provided some other examples: fuel subsidies for fishermen, petroleum distribution, solar power grid-feeding, etc.

This kind of disconnection comes to be when you know more about the logistics of a product or service than about how its physical nature defines its abilities and limitations. And more often than not, investigations of this physical nature neither require nor benefit from having their ‘stories’ humanised. There are so many natural wonders that populate the world we engage with, that have quietly but surely revolutionised our lives in many ways, whose potential to enhance–

III

Fuck, there I go, thinking about the universe in terms of humans. I concede that it’s a very fine line to inhabit – exploring our universe without thinking about humans… Maybe I should just get it out of my system: without understanding how the universe works, we as a species cannot hope to forever improve our quality of life; and, disconcertingly, this includes the act of being awed by natural beauty! It’s like Joey’s challenge to Phoebe in Friends: “There are no selfless acts.”

BUT we first do need to understand how the universe works in non-human, non-utilitarian terms. Asking if such a thing is even possible is a legitimate question but I also think that’s a separate conversation. We consume the pure science that we do because it’s what caught someone else’s fancy, it’s what a scientific journal is pushing in our faces, it’s what a scientist is thinking about in a well-funded research lab in the First World. There are many biases to overcome before we can truly claim to be in the presence of unadulterated/unmitigated beauty, before we can have that conversation about whether objective beauty really exists. However, the way to begin would be by acknowledging these biases exist and working to overcome them.

To those asking why should we at all – I’d have said “we should because I think so, and it’s up to you to trust me or not”, but I don’t because a lot of science writers around the world feel the same way, which means we have something in common. I don’t know what this something is but, thanks to the wellspring of responses Willyard’s post received, I know that I must find out.

Finally, I know that Willyard’s post doesn’t preclude all these possibilities. It simply asks that we get those uninterested in physics to give a damn by using the humans of physics as a conduit of interestingness. After all, the human condition may be a vanishingly small part of the cosmic condition that we partake of, that we have used to construct civilisation, and everything else out there may be cold, cold space – but humans are the way the universe examines itself.

My reservations exist in a very specific context: that of science journalism in India, specifically the India of pseudoscience, fake news, caste conflicts and broken education. In this context, I’m constantly anxious about becoming a selloff – a writer who gives up someday and trades his conviction in the power of pure science to help us think more clearly about our fraught communities and governments off in exchange for easy career progression.

fin.

Featured image: A simulation showing a binary blackhole pair (as seen by a nearby observer) spiralling around each other before they merge. Credit: Simulating eXtreme Spacetimes Lensing/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

By the way: the Chekhov’s gun and the science article

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” (source)

This is the principle of the Chekhov’s gun: that all items within a narrative must contribute to the overarching narrative itself, and those that don’t should be removed. This is very, very true of the first two Harry Potter books, where J.K. Rowling includes seemingly random bits of information in the first half of each book that, voila, suddenly reappear during the climax in important ways. (Examples: Quirrell’s turban and the Whomping Willow). Thankfully, Rowling’s writing improves significantly from the third book, where the Chekhov’s guns are more subtly introduced, and don’t always stay out of sight before being revived for the grand finale.

However, does the Chekhov’s gun have a place in a science article?

Most writers, editors and readers (I suspect) would reply in the affirmative. The more a bit of science communication stays away from redundancy, the better. Why introduce a term if it’s not going to be reused, or if it won’t contribute to the reader understanding what a writer has set out to explain? This is common-sensical. But my concern is about introducing information deftly embedded in the overarching narrative but which does not play any role in further elucidating the writer’s overall point.

Consider this example: I’m explaining a new research paper that talks about how a bunch of astronomers used a bunch of cool techniques to identify the properties of a distant star. While what is entirely novel about the paper is the set of techniques, I also include two lines about how the telescopes the astronomers used to make their observations operate using a principle called long baseline interferometry. And a third line about why each telescope is equipped with an atomic clock.

Now, I have absolutely no need to mention the phrases ‘long baseline interferometry’ and ‘atomic clocks’ in the piece. I can make my point just as well without them. However, to me it seems like a good opportunity to communicate to – and not just inform – the reader about interesting technologies, an opportunity I may not get again. But a professional editor (again, I suspect) would argue that if I’m trying to make a point and I know what that point is, I should just make that. That, like a laser pointer, I should keep my arguments focused and coherent.

I’m not sure I would agree. A little bit of divergence is okay, maybe even desirable at times.

Yes, I’m aware that editors working on stories that are going to be printed, and/or are paying per word, would like to keep things as concisely pointy as possible. And yes, I’m aware that including something that needn’t be included risks throwing the reader off, that we ought to minimise risk at all times. Finally, yes, I’m aware that digressing off into rivulets of information also forces the writer to later segue back into the narrative river, and that may not be elegant.

Of these three arguments (that I’ve been able to think of; if you have others, please feel free to let me know), the first one alone has the potential to be non-negotiable. The other two are up to the writer and the editor: if she or they can tuck away little gems of trivia without disrupting the story’s flow, why not? I for one would love to discover them, to find out about connections – scientific, technological or otherwise – in the real world that frequently find expression only with the prefix of a “by the way, did you know…”.

Featured image credit: DariuszSankowski/pixabay.

In pursuit of a nebulous metaphor…

I don’t believe in god, but if he/it/she/they existed, then his/its/her/their gift to science communication would’ve been the metaphor. Metaphors help make sense of truly unknowable things, get a grip on things so large that our minds boggle trying to comprehend them, and help writers express book-length concepts in a dozen words. Even if there is something lost in translation, as it were, metaphors help both writers and readers get a handle on something they would otherwise have struggled to.

One of my favourite expositions on the power of metaphors appeared in an article by Daniel Sarewitz, writing in Nature (readers of this blog will be familiar with the text I’m referring to). Sarewitz was writing about how nobody but trained physicists understands what the Higgs boson really is because those of us who do think we get it are only getting metaphors. The Higgs boson exists in a realm that humans cannot ever access (even Ant-Man almost died getting there), and physicists make sense of them through complicated mathematical abstractions.

Mr Wednesday makes just this point in American Gods (the TV show), when he asks his co-passenger in a flight what it is that makes them trust that the plane will fly. (Relatively) Few of us know the physics behind Newton’s laws of motion and Bernoulli’s work in fluid dynamics – but many of us believe in their robustness. In a sense, faith and metaphors keep us going and not knowledge itself because we truly know only little.

However, the ease that metaphors offer writers at such a small cost (minimised further for those writers who know how to deal with that cost) sometimes means that they’re misused or overused. Sometimes, some writers will abdicate their responsibility to stay as close to the science – and the objective truth, such as it is – as possible by employing metaphors where one could easily be avoided. My grouse of choice at the moment is this tweet by New Scientist:

The writer has had the courtesy to use the word ‘equivalent’ but it can’t do much to salvage the sentence’s implications from the dumpster. Different people have different takeaways from the act of smoking. I think of lung and throat cancer; someone else will think of reduced lifespan; yet another person will think it’s not so bad because she’s a chain-smoker; someone will think it gives them GERD. It’s also a bad metaphor to use because the effects of smoking vary from person to person based on various factors (including how long they’ve been smoking 15 cigarettes a day for). This is why researchers studying the effects of smoking quantify not the risk but the relative risk (RR): the risk of some ailment (including reduced lifespan) relative to non-smokers in the same population.

There are additional concerns that don’t allow the smoking-loneliness congruence to be generally applicable. For example, according to a paper published in the Journal of Insurance Medicine in 2008,

An important consideration [is] the extent to which each study (a) excluded persons with pre-existing medical conditions, perhaps those due to smoking, and (b) controlled for various co-morbid factors, such as age, sex, race, education, weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer. Studies that excluded persons with medical conditions due to smoking, or controlled for factors related to smoking (e.g., blood pressure), would be expected to find lower RRs. Conversely, studies that did not account for sufficient confounding factors (such as age or weight) might find higher RRs.

So, which of these – or any other – effects of smoking is the writer alluding to? Quoting from the New Scientist article,

Lonely people are at increased risk of “just about every major chronic illness – heart attacks, neurodegenerative diseases, cancer,” says Cole. “Just a completely crazy range of bad disease risks seem to all coalesce around loneliness.” A meta-analysis of nearly 150 studies found that a poor quality of social relationships had the same negative effect on risk of death smoking, alcohol and other well-known factors such as inactivity and obesity. “Correcting for demographic factors, loneliness increases the odds of early mortality by 26 per cent,” says Cacioppo. “That’s about the same as living with chronic obesity.”

The metaphor the writer was going for was one of longevity. Bleh.

When I searched for the provenance of this comparison (between smoking and loneliness), I landed up on two articles by the British writer George Monbiot in The Guardian, both of which make the same claim*: that smoking 15 cigarettes a day will reduce your lifespan by as much as a lifetime of loneliness. Both claims referenced a paper titled ‘Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review’, published in July 2010. Its ‘Discussion’ section reads:

Data across 308,849 individuals, followed for an average of 7.5 years, indicate that individuals with adequate social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships. The magnitude of this effect is comparable with quitting smoking and it exceeds many well-known risk factors for mortality (e.g., obesity, physical inactivity).

In this context, there’s no doubt that the writer is referring to the benefits of smoking cessation on lifespan. However, the number ’15’ itself is missing from its text. This is presumably because, as Cacioppo – one of the scientists quoted by the New Scientist – says, loneliness can decrease your lifespan by 26%, and I assume an older study cited by the one quoted above relates it to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. So I went looking, and (two hours later) couldn’t find anything.

I don’t mean to rubbish the congruence as a result, however – far from it. I want to highlight the principal reason I didn’t find a claim that fit the proverbial glove: most studies that seek to quantify smoking-related illnesses like to keep things as specific as possible, especially the cohort under consideration. This suggests that extrapolating the ’15 cigarettes a day’ benchmark into other contexts is not a good idea, especially when the writer does not know – and the reader is not aware of – the terms of the ’15 cigarettes’ claim nor the terms of the social relationships study. For example, one study I found involved the following:

The authors investigated the association between changes in smoking habits and mortality by pooling data from three large cohort studies conducted in Copenhagen, Denmark. The study included a total of 19,732 persons who had been examined between 1967 and 1988, with reexaminations at 5- to 10-year intervals and a mean follow-up of 15.5 years. Date of death and cause of death were obtained by record linkage with nationwide registers. By means of Cox proportional hazards models, heavy smokers (≥15 cigarettes/day) who reduced their daily tobacco intake by at least 50% without quitting between the first two examinations and participants who quit smoking were compared with persons who continued to smoke heavily.

… and it presents a table of table with various RRs. Perhaps something from there can be fished out by the New Scientist writer and used carefully to suggest the comparability between smoking-associated mortality rates and the corresponding effects of loneliness…

*The figure of ’15 cigarettes’ seems to appear in conjunction with a lot of claims about smoking as well as loneliness all over the web. It seems 15 a day is the line between light and heavy smoking.

Featured image credit: skeeze/pixabay.

Communication, journalism and bullshit

A week or two ago, a scientist impressed with The Wire‘s coverage of science recommended that I stick to covering the good stuff (my syntax) and keep away from highlighting pseudoscience and other happenings of questionable footing.

Then, a few days ago, a science writer expressed an adjacent set of complaints to me. He said that (a) he had a problem with most science journalism simply being science communication, and (b) that whatever was being communicated was invariably optimistic about science’s intention itself.

Both these men are expressing valid concerns – but my disagreement with them was almost immediate. And the reason I’m discussing them here is that the scientist’s advice and the writer’s first complaint allude to a common concern: do people know how to differentiate between science and pseudoscience?

It’s a skill many of us take for granted, often because we’re aware of

  1. The investigative methods of science
  2. Common sources of inaccuracy and imprecision, and
  3. The features of scientific publishing

– all topped off with a passing familiarity with subjects most often in the news. For example, almost everyone in my social circles will suspect a news article claiming scientists have successfully cloned a fully grown human being or resurrected a mammoth. But I can’t say that all my readers will be able to as well.

So covering pseudoscience and research misconduct is a way to, first, highlight the existence of these modes of interrogating a claim and, second, to encourage readers to employ them with every (scientific) claim they’re ever faced with.

Another way to elucidate these modes – and delineate more like them – is to communicate sound science (as distinct from addressing it as a journalist). A typical example of this is for the communicator to take up a seemingly complicated piece of science and break it down in such a way that you stay faithful to scientists and their work – as well as to your intention to ensure a non-scientist gets the science and its spirit.

To “let the science speak for itself” – as the scientist told me – first requires an awareness of the boundaries within which scientific claims must qualify themselves. In a country like India, I suspect (from experience) that many people are unaware of these boundaries. It might not even be far-fetched to say that, in these circumstances, science communication is a form of science journalism. And science journalism can only benefit from a readership that knows and asks the right questions.

I’m reminded at this point of the words of Eric Hobsbawm (The Age of Extremes, p. 530):

The suspicion and fear of science [in the early to mid-nineteenth century] was fuelled by four feelings: that science was incomprehensible; that both its practical and moral consequences were unpredictable and probably catastrophic; and that it underlined the helplessness of the individual, and undermined authority. Nor should we overlook the sentiment that, to the extent that science interfered with the natural order of things, it was inherently dangerous.

Science can have these attributes (at times more so than we might like to acknowledge) and such effects, and that’s when science journalism – a la the writer’s second concern – is required. But it has to be preceded by science communication, or Gwyneth Paltrow is going to sell you her jade dildos. Or worse.

Featured image credit: Hans/pixabay.

The intricacies of being sold on string theory

If you are seeking an appreciation for the techniques of string theory, then Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe could be an optional supplement. If, on the other hand, you want to explore the epistemological backdrop against which string theory proclaimed its aesthetic vigor, then the book is a must-read. As the title implies, it discusses the elegance of string theory in great and pleasurable detail, beginning from a harmonious resolution of the conflicts between quantum mechanics and general relativity being its raison d’être to why it commands the attention of some of the greatest living scientists.

A bigger victory it secures, however, is not in simply laying out string theory but getting you interested in it – and this has become a particularly important feature of science in the 21st century.

The counter-intuitive depiction of nature by the principles of modern physics have, since the mid-20th century, foretold that reality can be best understood in terms of mathematical expressions. This contrasted the simplicity of its preceding paradigm: Newtonian physics, which was less about the mathematics and more about observations, and therefore required fewer interventions to bridge reality as it seemed and reality as it said it was.

Modern physics – encompassing quantum mechanics and Albert Einstein’s theories of relativity – overhauled this simplicity. While reality as it seemed hadn’t changed, reality as they said it was bore no semblence to any of Newton’s work. The process of understanding reality became much more sophisticated, requiring years of training just to prepare oneself to be able to understand it, while probing it required the grandest associations of intellect and hardware.

The trouble getting it across

An overlooked side to this fallout concerned the instruction of these subjects to non-technical audiences, to people who liked to know what was going on but didn’t want to dedicate their lives to it1. Both quantum mechanics and general relativity are dominated by advanced mathematics, yet spelling out such abstractions is neither convenient nor effective for non-technical communication. As a result, science communicators have increasingly resorted to metaphors, using them to negotiate with the knowledge their readers already possessed.

This is where The Elegant Universe is most effective, especially since string theory is admittedly more difficult to understand than quantum mechanics or general relativity ever was. In fact, the book’s first few chapters – before Greene delves into string theory – are seasoned with statements of how intricate string theory is, while he does a tremendous job of laying the foundations of modern physics.

Especially admirable is his seamless guidance of the reader from time dilation and Lorentzian contraction to quantum superposition to the essentials of superstring theory to the unification of all forces under M-theory, with nary a twitch in between. The examples with which he illustrates important concepts are never mundane, too. His flamboyant writing makes for the proverbial engaging read. You will often find words you wouldn’t quickly use to describe the world around you, endorsing a supreme confidence in the subject being discussed.

Consider: “… the gently curving geometrical form of space emerging from general relativity is at loggerheads with the frantic, roiling, microscopic behavior of the universe implied by quantum mechanics”. Or, “With the discovery of superstring theory, musical metaphors take on a startling reality, for the theory suggests that the microscopic landscape is suffused with tiny strings whose vibrational patterns orchestrate the evolution of the cosmos. The winds of charge, according to superstring theory, gust through an aeolian universe.”

More importantly, Greene’s points of view in the book betray a confidence in string theory itself – as if he thinks that it is the only way to unify quantum mechanics and general relativity under an umbrella pithily called the ‘theory of everything’. What it means for you, the reader, is that you can expect The Elegant Universe not to be an exploratory stroll through a garden but more of a negotiation of the high seas.

Taking recourse in emotions

Does this subtract from the objectivity an enthused reader might appreciate as it would have prepared her to tackle the unification problem by herself? Somewhat. It is a subtle flaw in Greene’s reasoning throughout the book: while he devotes many pages to discussing solutions, he spends little time annotating the flaws of string theory itself. Even if no other theory has charted the sea of unification so well, Greene could have maintained some objectivity about it.

At the same time, by the end of the book, you start to think there is no other way to expound on string theory than by constantly retreating into the intensity of emotions and the honest sensationalism they are capable of yielding. For instance, when describing his own work alongside Paul Aspinwall and David Morrison in determining if space can tear in string theory, Greene introduces the theory’s greatest exponent, Edward Witten. As he writes,

“Edward Witten’s razor-sharp intellect is clothed in a soft-spoken demeanor that often has a wry, almost ironic, edge. He is widely regarded as Einstein’s successor in the role of the world’s greatest living physicist. Some would go even further and describe him as the greatest physicist of all time. He has an insatiable appetite for cutting-edge physics problems and he wields tremendous influence in setting the direction of research in string theory.”

Then, in order to convey the difficulty of a problem that the trio was facing, Greene simply states: Witten “lit up upon hearing the ideas, but cautioned that he thought the calculations would be horrendously difficult”. If Witten expects them to be horrendously difficult, then they must indeed be as horrendous as they get.

Such descriptions of magnitude are peppered throughout The Elegant Universe, often clothed in evocative language, and constitute a significant portion of its appeal to a general audience. They rob string theory of its esoteric stature, making the study of its study memorable. Greene has done well to not dwell on the technical intricacies of his subject while still retaining both the wonderment and the frustration of dealing with something as intractable. This, in fact, is his prime achievement through writing the book.

String theory is not about technique

It was published in 1999. In the years since, many believe that string theory has become dormant. However, that is also where the book scores: not by depicting the theory as being unfalsifiable but as being resilient, as being incomplete enough to dare physicists to follow their own lead in developing it, as being less of a feat in breathtaking mathematics and more of constantly putting one’s beliefs to the test.

Simultaneously, it is unlike the theories of inflationary cosmology that are so flexible that disproving them is like fencing with air. String theory has a sound historical basis in the work of Leonhard Euler, and its careful derivation from those founding principles to augur the intertwined destinies of space and time have concerned the efforts of simply the world’s best mathematicians.

Since the late 1960s, when string theory was first introduced, it has gone through alternating periods of reaffirmation and discreditation. Each crest in this journey has been introduced by a ‘superstring revolution’, a landmark hypothesis or discovery that has restored its place in the scientific canon. Each trough, on the other hand, has represented a difficult struggle to attempt to cohere the implications of string theory into a convincing picture of reality.

These struggles are paralleled by Greene’s efforts in composing The Elegant Universe, managing to accomplish what is often lost in the translation of human endeavors: the implications for the common person. This could be in the form of beauty, or a better life, or some form of intellectual satisfaction; in the end, the book succeeds by drawing these possibilities to the fore, for once overshadowing the enormity of the undertaking that string theory will always be.

Buy the book on Amazon.

1Although it can also be argued that science communication as a special skill was necessitated by science becoming so complex.

Beat-sculpting, money-making and science journalism

Money is not always just money but also economic relevance. Mr. Benjamin Franklin likely agrees.

Today, my class had two guests. Malcolm Ritter, whose Twitter profile reads “Associated Press science reporter”, is not just any science reporter. He’s been covering science for AP for over 30 years now. While Dan Fagin said Ritter’s journey through journalism might not be relevant to our class considering he made a name for himself before the new media wave swept through, Ritter’s answers to our questions revealed a skills set brilliantly honed by three decades of reporting.

Our second guest was Andrea Thompson, a senior science writer at Climate Central and an alumnus of the program she was now addressing, from 2005. Until recently, Andrea was with Live Science before switching to CC.

With Dan “compering”, my classmates and I had many questions for the duo. I had two the answers to which revealed some informative differences between newsrooms in India and the United States. Here they are.

You’re both beat journalists. Dan also mentioned something about science journalism having become very competitive recently. In this setting, how protective of your beats have you had to be [within the organization]?

This question may have mildly startled our guests, neither of whom had a specific answer in that they had nothing to say about my concern. Dan jumped in and clarified that when he said ‘competitive’ – whenever he said it – he didn’t mean journalists pushing their colleagues on the same beat out of their way. I said then that, though I wasn’t disputing him, I had worked for a couple years in India in an environment where people often competed to simply retain their beats, and that that’s what prompted my question.

I don’t have to stress on the point that having a beat all to yourself can be very comforting. Apart from working secure in the knowledge that only you produce the news on whatever your beat is, you also get to sculpt your employer-institution’s attitude toward happenings in that beat, which can be a powerful exercise, as well as your audience’s. But herein lies the rub.

Dan equated the presence of multiple journalists (from the same org.) working on common beats to the organization’s success – which is almost obviously true. If a newspaper puts multiple journalists on the same beat (which The Hindu did; not sure if it does anymore), then

  1. It must enjoy a large and loyal readership for whom so-so beat must be covered in great detail
  2. It must be able to afford putting two, three or four journalists on the same beat

Dan continued, “Here [in the United States], companies are short-staffed.” His choice of words implies that they’re more likely not doing well than that they intend to run a lean organization. By extension, the ‘rub’ is that your opportunity to be ‘beat-sculpting’ is more accessible if you’re writing for a smaller audience – which is kind of ironic. (Remember at this point that I’m writing based on just two experiences: talking to Dan and working with a newspaper publisher in India.)

How do journalists at publications like The New York Times and The Guardian organize their beats? This is what I’d like to know.

My second question:

How much influence does the business model of your employer wield over how you write?

Again, this was a question that didn’t bring forth eager answers. I was disappointed with myself for not being able to ask the “right” questions… but only briefly, recalling that I was among a bunch of people wanting to talk about science writing, not the business that surrounded it. I also think now that I should’ve worded my question differently, and perhaps asked it to someone else.

Earlier, in response to someone else, Malcolm Ritter had recounted that there were a lot of newspapers in the United States in the early 1990s that sported dedicated science pages (similar to what The New York Times and The Hindu continue to publish to this day), and that by the close of the decade, all those sections had either been truncated or assimilated into the rest of the paper. Dan and Malcolm agreed that this was because science news wasn’t bringing in the money.

Next, as the 2000s labored on, publishers began to realize that science writing could be cool as well as impactful when done right, and there were, and continue to be, a lot of people to do it right. At this point: I believe remaining unmindful of the exact reasons why science journalism saw a decline and then an improvement in prospects endangers our ability to keep science journalism always relevant. It seems social forces cannot be entrusted with this task because why else would dedicated science sections disappear and then start from scratch in building a case to reappear?

The economic forces hold the key.

In this context, science journalists shouldn’t be concerned only for the wellbeing of their beats or the people or the trees or whatever but also for the future of their unique profession. They should not be completely insulated from the business side of their work, and this goes far beyond simple populist ideals and toward engendering an entrepreneurial streak of thinking about new forms of publishing and channels of revenue, at least specific to as exacting an enterprise as science journalism.

This is what I expected our guests to talk about when I asked my question. But I think now that I got my audience wrong, not to mention my lousy wording.

What do you think?

Being a science journalist with dignity

Classes at NYU have started! On day one, Michael Balter, who is a senior correspondent for Science, kicked off the program with an introduction to interviewing by, simply enough, interviewing each one of us, having us introduce ourselves at the same time. I’m not sure about how much others were able to take away from it, but I couldn’t much until Michael told us that he was getting each one of us to say something interesting. And it was only in hindsight that his demonstration started to make sense to me.

After introductions, we got into discussing Michael’s classes, how they’d be structured, what we’d be expected to do and what goals we’d better have in mind. While they wore on, what struck me hardest was my great inexperience as a science writer. Despite having spent two years at The Hindu reporting on science as well as grappling with tools to take the subject to a bigger audience, all that I’d thought were problems that only accrued with time found mention in our classroom discussion on day one.

Maybe we’d take on these problems “in detail” in the coming months, but their quick acknowledgment was proof enough for me that I was in the right place and among the right people.

Participating in the discussion – led by Michael’s comments – finally gave me the sense of dignity in being a science journalist that I believe is not easy to acquire in India except, of course, together with being considered exotic. It was reassuring to be able to discuss my problems in detail, especially being able to pick on small, nagging issues. For example, stuff like “What do you do when a scientist you’ve spoken to asks to see the story before it is published?”

It seems the answer’s not always a simple “No”.

The class on Day 2, by Dan Fagin, was more introspective. Seemingly, it was the class that explored – and I suppose will continue to explore – the basics of journalism in detail; what a news story is, where story ideas come from, etc. – the class that will keep us thinking about what it is that we’re really doing and why we’re doing it. And just to make things more interesting – and obviously more educative – each one of us in the class was assigned a beat to cover for the semester, so chosen that they lay completely outside our respective comfort zones.

Taking my cue from Masterchef USA, where so many attempts to cook the personally uncookable had paid off and trying to play it safe with “just chicken” had backfired, I got myself assigned genetics, secure in the knowledge that:

  1. If I do screw up, I will screw up gloriously.
  2. If I end up being able to write about experimental physics and genetics with equal ease, I will also likely feel up for anything.

Toward the end, and just like on orientation day, Dan had another nugget of golden advice. He said that while writing his stories, he had in mind not his entire potential audience but one reader in particular – a fantasy reader: a man named Stan whom Dan knew, who wanted to know everything about the world but actually didn’t know anything. “Pick someone like that, and my advice is don’t pick your mother because she will like everything you write.”

At this point, although I would like to keep writing, I’m going to have to get started on my assignments. So I’m going to leave you with this quote from an amazing blog post by Paige Brown Jarreau I read on SciLogs the other day, to give you a sense of why I’m writing “NYUlab” in the first place.

So if you are a student, especially a student of mass communication or a student studying at the intersection of two different fields, I highly encourage you to blog. Use your blog to make connections between concepts in vastly different fields of study, or that seemingly occupy different parts of your brain. Tie your art classes to science communication. Tie your biology classes to your information theory classes. Tie your knowledge of human cognition to environmental and scientific issues. Don’t let anything you learn or read about go un-applied.

Over time, I’m hoping my experiences at NYU will pay off in much the same way, by becoming closely tied to different aspects of my life. Have a nice day!