This is a series of Q&As with young and up-and-coming science, health and environmental writers and reporters. They have recently hatched in the Incubators (science writing programs at schools of journalism), have even more recently fledged (graduated), and are now making their mark as wonderful new voices explaining science to the public.
Aatish is a full time graduate student working on population genetics and bioinformatics. During his undergrad years though, he was a physics student. Combining his passion for physics and his new-found love for biology, Aatish writes his highly-acclaimed blog, Empirical Zeal, where he explores the science he finds fascinating and exciting. He has won the 3QuarksDaily Science Prize and will be featured in Open Lab, a print anthology of the best online science writing, to be published by Scientific American Books.
I’m really glad that Aatish has accepted to answer a few questions about his relatively young science blogging life for The SA Incubator.
Hello and welcome to The SA Incubator. First off, how and why did you get into science writing?
Science and writing have always been quite closely related for me. My dad's a journalist and mom's a writer, so I grew up around stacks of books. To a large extent, my interest in science grew from reading popular science.
The gateway book for me was Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. That's not really a book about science as much as an autobiography of a infamously eccentric and brilliant physicist. But it made my eighth-grade self realize that interesting people actually chose science as a career. That opened the door to a lot of other popular science authors. It became a bit of an obsession, but to a large extent, these books guided my career interests. Feynman’s books were my hook into physics. In a similar way, when I came across Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, and David Attenborough’s documentaries, I began to realize that evolution is utterly fascinating.
So it's not surprising that I jumped on to science blogs. Sean Carroll, Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong really brought out the potential of the medium. Through these blogs I could follow science as it was being done. To an info-junkie, this was like crack-cocaine.
Until about a year ago, I was always on the consuming end of science writing. But I began to realize that there are plenty of stories that I find exciting, that I wanted to share outside of my circle of friends. So that's where the blog began.
How important a role do you think young science bloggers and communicators, such as yourself, have in today’s society?
I think there's something really valuable in having your mind blown every once in a while. This, to me, is the most valuable aspect of science communication. The Carl Sagan / Neil deGrasse Tyson / David Attenborough effect is now trickling down through hundreds of channels.
In my writing, I try to emulate the 'wow factor' that, as a student, I sought out from books. And there are plenty of blogs out there that high-school me would have loved to read. So in this sense, I think science blogs can be inspiring, and that's valuable.
Another important role of research blogging is that it can bring the educated public closer to the action. Taxpayers are ultimately making decisions on whether to fund science, and there's never been more free information available as to why this is valuable. Take Ed Yong's blog. He takes very technical research papers and digests them in a manner that is accessible to perhaps a thousand-fold more people. The reachable audience for scientific research has grown massively, and that's a great thing.
Let’s talk about your blog. Your blog posts have a knack of combining biology with physics, an area that has a notorious reputation of being hard to cover for a more mainstream audience. How do you go about explaining physics when you blog?
Often when I don't understand something in physics, there's another way to look at it that makes more sense. I think this applies to science writing as well—it helps to have the right picture in mind. Quantum physics is a subject that has a reputation for being abstract and incomprehensible. There's a book by Feynman called
QED in which he builds a cartoon picture of subatomic particles that is accurate and easy to visualize. And based on this cartoon picture, he goes on to explain some rather subtle and beautiful experiments in quantum mechanics. It's my favorite example of how much mileage you can get out of a good picture. And so whenever I write about science, I try to have something concrete that a reader can grab onto and follow along.
“Crayola-fication of the World: How we gave colors names, and it messed with our brains,” (Part 1, Part 2) your latest series, deals with the role language plays in colour perception. How did you tackle this topic? Give us an insight in your planning, research and writing process here.
Sometimes I write on subjects that I don’t know much about (these articles are often the most fun to write), so the first task is to do my homework. That means looking up the primary research papers, and if I don't understand something (usually the case), then following references to dig up more background information.
In the case of the 'Crayola-fication' series, I started off wanting to write about something else. My advisor sent me an interesting BBC article about a group of physicists who ran a computer simulation that helped explain how our color words changed over time. I looked up the study, and wrestled for a while with how I would write about this. Eventually I realized that I was more surprised by the background in this field - some classic studies that showed that there’s a universal order to how cultures name colors. And there was related work that showed that language can affect how we perceive color differences.
Once I narrowed down the papers I wanted to write about, the narrative structure sort of fell into place. As I was researching the piece, Radiolab happened to come out with an episode on color that nicely complemented the article, so the timing seemed right.
In the final stage, I generally spend an embarrassingly long time tinkering, making tiny edits of word choices and phrasing. (I think I’ve inherited this disease from my parents.) With all my posts, I actually read it aloud before I hit publish. Any sentence that I couldn’t pull off in a conversation is suspect, and this helps me write in my own voice.
I’m curious to know how your academic community/peers view your blogging endeavours. Scientists are sometimes put off from blogging because it is frowned upon by their peers. How has it been for you?
I was concerned about this at first. Fortunately, my experience has been quite the opposite. My advisor and peers have been very supportive of my writing, as has the chair of the physics department. When my post on color won the 3QuarksDaily Science Prize, my advisor responded with a very nice congratulatory email. I don't think I could ask for much more in this regard.
A number of scientists view the science blogosphere as a closed chamber—a community which is talking to itself. What are your views on this and how important do you think it is to communicate science to the “general” audience?
Some science blogs have a technically inclined audience. Others go for a more general readership. I try to sit in the latter camp, although I enjoy both kinds of blogs. One prerequisite to having a general audience is that your writing has to be non-technical and devoid of all jargon. But that's not enough. You still need to get on the radar of people who would find you interesting, but aren't necessarily seeking you out. In that sense it's a bit like dating.
An outlet that does this exceptionally well is the podcast Radiolab. They have something like two million listeners, and they often go into some pretty detailed science on the show. The science is fascinating, but a lot of their popularity has to do with the gorgeous packaging, and compelling narrative.
It’s hard for science blogs to break out of their bubble, but it's very rewarding when it happens. I was very pleased that my recent post on color attracted readers from across the spectrum, particularly a lot of visual artists. This was possible through twitter and facebook, and it got me thinking about how to package an article to attract more readers from outside the sciences.
You also have a keen interest in India’s education sector. What are your views about this important sector in India and how big a contributor to scientific research do you anticipate India to be in the next few years?
India's going through a particularly acute educational crisis, where more than half of fifth graders in rural schools can't read or add numbers at a second grade level. There's a severe shortage of very basic infrastructure in these schools. (I've written about this
here.) In 2009, the government passed the Right to Education Act, that aims to guarantee education to all children. It’s been strongly criticized, and there aren’t enough schools and teachers for everyone. The country is in the early stages of a fairly massive educational experiment, and it remains to be seen how things will improve.
As for science, any Indian student vaguely interested in science was typically pushed (or more rarely, nudged) into becoming a doctor or an engineer, and rarely to pursue a career as a scientist. Part of that is due to lack of funding opportunities and role models, which I think is changing now. But we also need a more inspiring and up-to-date science syllabus, that focuses more on analytical thinking than memorization, and is better connected with current topics in research.
What are your plans for the future? You’ve written about colour perception, how it feels like for a sperm... what’s next? Also, are you thinking about writing for other avenues beyond your blog?
It's firefly season across North America, so I was thinking about doing an article about fireflies. I've always found them quite cool. And there's a lot of science behind the scenes. There's the physics and chemistry of bioluminescence, and the forces of sexual selection at play. What I find most surprising is that the blinking lights have a fixed pattern, a sort of secret handshake between males and females of the same species. And there are even clever carnivorous fireflies, who imitate the female blinking pattern and gobble up any male that comes by. It’s neat to imagine that all this wild stuff is happening behind some pretty lights.
I'm also thinking of incorporating more of my teaching into the blog. I'm teaching a class in robotics, and another one the physics of sustainability, so I'd like to blog about these subjects as well.
Sounds terrific! All the best and thank you!
Thanks again for having me on here.
Previously in this series: