One of the first, and most important in hindsight, bits of advice I got from the journalist Siddharth Varadarajan was about how to choose what to write: “Write what you’d like to read” (Dan Fagin would later add the important “why now” dimension). As someone avidly interested in scientific theories – especially in physics and astronomy – I’ve noticed that the best stories around today about theoretical research have narratives centred around some kind of human dilemma. One of the more recent examples of such stories is of Shinichi Mochizuki’s work trying to solve the abc conjecture. The principal ‘plot element’ was that Mochizuki’s proposed solution to the problem required some superhuman efforts of concentration and re-learning – the latter being something humans are not naturally good at.
However, I found my reading was only half-sated by stories like Mochizuki’s. The other half was best found in books that described the development of complex scientific theories through the lives of more than a few researchers. The last such book I read was Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, which posits string theory as likely being the ultimate and singular framework in physics and mathematics capable of describing this universe we inhabit. Despite my issues with the book, I really liked it because of its introduction to great scientists starting with how they got interested in some topics and how their work jumped thereon from one idea to another. Such stories sometimes don’t involve conflicts, and so science journalists are not motivated to write about them, which is understandable.
Yet, I think such stories need to make an appearance in the pages of the mainstream media because the glimpses they provide into the lives and thought-processes of scientists who’ve succeeded in making one contribution or another are seldom available anywhere else but books. So when I received a 5,400-word interview of the theoretical physicist Abhay Ashtekar to publish on The Wire, I published the whole thing. Though Ashtekar describes some friction within the field, the interview as such makes for pleasant, informative reading. I hope you enjoy reading it (for whatever reason).