Why scientists should read more

The amount of communicative effort to describe the fact of a ball being thrown is vanishingly low. It’s as simple as saying, “X threw the ball.” It takes a bit more effort to describe how an internal combustion engine works – especially if you’re writing for readers who have no idea how thermodynamics works. However, if you spend enough time, you can still completely describe it without compromising on any details.

Things start to get more difficult when you try to explain, for example, how webpages are loaded in your browser: because the technology is more complicated and you often need to talk about electric signals and logical computations – entities that you can’t directly see. You really start to max out when you try to describe everything that goes into launching a probe from Earth and landing it on a comet because, among other reasons, it brings together advanced ideas in a large number of fields.

At this point, you feel ambitious and you turn your attention to quantum technologies – only to realise you’ve crossed a threshold into a completely different realm of communication, a realm in which you need to pick between telling the whole story and risk being (wildly) misunderstood OR swallowing some details and making sure you’re entirely understood.

Last year, a friend and I spent dozens of hours writing a 1,800-word article explaining the Aharonov-Bohm quantum interference effect. We struggled so much because understanding this effect – in which electrons are affected by electromagnetic fields that aren’t there – required us to understand the wave-function, a purely mathematical object that describes real-world phenomena, like the behaviour of some subatomic particles, and mathematical-physical processes like non-Abelian transformations. Thankfully my friend was a physicist, a string theorist for added measure; but while this meant that I could understand what was going on, we spent a considerable amount of time negotiating the right combination of metaphors to communicate what we wanted to communicate.

However, I’m even more grateful in hindsight that my friend was a physicist who understood the need to not exhaustively include details. This need manifests in two important ways. The first is the simpler, grammatical way, in which we construct increasingly involved meanings using a combination of subjects, objects, referrers, referents, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, gerunds, etc. The second way is more specific to science communication: in which the communicator actively selects a level of preexisting knowledge on the reader’s part – say, high-school education at an English-medium institution – and simplifies the slightly more complicated stuff while using approximations, metaphors and allusions to reach for the mind-boggling.

Think of it like building an F1 racecar. It’s kinda difficult if you already have the engine, some components to transfer kinetic energy through the car and a can of petrol. It’s just ridiculous if you need to start with mining iron ore, extracting oil and preparing a business case to conduct televisable racing sports. In the second case, you’re better off describing what you’re trying to do to the caveman next to you using science fiction, maybe poetry. The problem is that to really help an undergraduate student of mechanical engineering make sense of, say, the Casimir effect, I’d rather say:

According to quantum mechanics, a vacuum isn’t completely empty; rather, it’s filled with quantum fluctuations. For example, if you take two uncharged plates and bring them together in a vacuum, only quantum fluctuations with wavelengths shorter than the distance between the plates can squeeze between them. Outside the plates, however, fluctuations of all wavelengths can fit. The energy outside will be greater than inside, resulting in a net force that pushes the plates together.

‘Quantum Atmospheres’ May Reveal Secrets of Matter, Quanta, September 2018

I wouldn’t say the following even though it’s much less wrong:

The Casimir effect can be understood by the idea that the presence of conducting metals and dielectrics alters the vacuum expectation value of the energy of the second-quantised electromagnetic field. Since the value of this energy depends on the shapes and positions of the conductors and dielectrics, the Casimir effect manifests itself as a force between such objects.

Casimir effect, Wikipedia

Put differently, the purpose of communication is to be understood – not learnt. And as I’m learning these days, while helping virologists compose articles on the novel coronavirus and convincing physicists that comparing the Higgs field to molasses isn’t wrong, this difference isn’t common knowledge at all. More importantly, I’m starting to think that my physicist-friend who really got this difference did so because he reads a lot. He’s a veritable devourer of texts. So he knows it’s okay – and crucially why it’s okay – to skip some details.

I’m half-enraged when really smart scientists just don’t get this, and accuse editors (like me) of trying instead to misrepresent their work. (A group that’s slightly less frustrating consists of authors who list their arguments in one paragraph after another, without any thought for the article’s structure and – more broadly – recognising the importance of telling a story. Even if you’re reviewing a book or critiquing a play, it’s important to tell a story about the thing you’re writing about, and not simply enumerate your points.)

To them – which is all of them because those who think they know the difference but really don’t aren’t going to acknowledge the need to bridge the difference, and those who really know the difference are going to continue reading anyway – I say: I acknowledge that imploring people to communicate science more without reading more is fallacious, so read more, especially novels and creative non-fiction, and stories that don’t just tell stories but show you how we make and remember meaning, how we memorialise human agency, how memory works (or doesn’t), and where knowledge ends and wisdom begins.

There’s a similar problem I’ve faced when working with people for whom English isn’t the first language. Recently, a person used to reading and composing articles in the passive voice was livid after I’d changed numerous sentences in the article they’d submitted to the active voice. They really didn’t know why writing, and reading, in the active voice is better because they hadn’t ever had to use English for anything other than writing and reading scientific papers, where the passive voice is par for the course.

I had a bigger falling out with another author because I hadn’t been able to perfectly understand the point they were trying to make, in sentences of broken English, and used what I could infer to patch them up – except I was told I’d got most of them wrong. And they couldn’t implement my suggestions either because they couldn’t understand my broken Hindi.

These are people that I can’t ask to read more. The Wire and The Wire Science publish in English but, despite my (admittedly inflated) view of how good these publications are, I’ve no reason to expect anyone to learn a new language because they wish to communicate their ideas to a large audience. That’s a bigger beast of a problem, with tentacles snaking through colonialism, linguistic chauvinism, regional identities, even ideologies (like mine – to make no attempts to act on instructions, requests, etc. issued in Hindi even if I understand the statement). But at the same time there’s often too much lost in translation – so much so that (speaking from my experience in the last five years) 50% of all submissions written by authors for whom English isn’t the first language don’t go on to get published, even if it was possible for either party to glimpse during the editing process that they had a fascinating idea on their hands.

And to me, this is quite disappointing because one of my goals is to publish a more diverse group of writers, especially from parts of the country underrepresented thus far in the national media landscape. Then again, I acknowledge that this status quo axiomatically charges us to ensure there are independent media outlets with science sections and publishing in as many languages as we need. A monumental task as things currently stand, yes, but nonetheless, we remain charged.


The weekly linklist – July 25, 2020

I’ve decided to publish this linklist via Substack. Next weekend onwards, it will only be available on And this is why the list exists and what kind of articles you can find in it.

  • Want to buy a parrot? Please login via Facebook. – “F-commerce emerged in Bangladesh largely because there was no major e-commerce platform to absorb all the business. But although it’s biggest there, this form of selling isn’t exclusive to the country, or even the region: globally, 160 million small stores operate on Facebook, and in countries like Thailand, almost half of all online sales happen through social media.”
  • The history of climate science – “The fact that carbon dioxide is a ‘greenhouse gas’ – a gas that prevents a certain amount of heat radiation escaping back to space and thus maintains a generally warm climate on Earth, goes back to an idea that was first conceived, though not specifically with respect to CO2, nearly 200 years ago. The story of how this important physical property was discovered, how its role in the geological past was evaluated and how we came to understand that its increased concentration, via fossil fuel burning, would adversely affect our future, covers about two centuries of enquiry, discovery, innovation and problem-solving.”
  • The story of cryptomining in Europe’s most disputed state – “In early 2018, millions of digital clocks across Europe began falling behind time. Few took notice at first as slight disruptions in the power supply caused bedside alarms and oven timers running on the frequency of electric current to begin lagging. … European authorities soon traced the power fluctuations to North Kosovo, a region commonly described as one of Europe’s last ganglands. Since 2015, its major city, Mitrovica, has been under the control of Srpska Lista, a mafia masquerading as a political party. Around the time Srpska came to power, North Kosovo’s electricity consumption surged. Officials at the Kosovo Electricity Supply Company in Prishtina, Kosovo’s capital city, told me that the region now requires 20 percent more power than it did five years ago. Eventually, it became clear why: across the region, from the shabby apartment blocks of Mitrovica to the cellars of mountain villages, Bitcoin and Ethereum rigs were humming away, fueling a shadow economy of cryptocurrency manufacturing.”
  • Electromagnetic pulses are the last thing you need to worry about in a nuclear explosion – “The electromagnetic pulse that comes from the sundering of an atom, potentially destroying electronics within the blast radius with some impact miles away from ground zero, is just one of many effects of every nuclear blast. What is peculiar about these pulses, often referred to as EMPs, is the way the side effect of a nuclear blast is treated as a special threat in its own right by bodies such as the Task Force on National and Homeland Security, which, despite the official-sounding name, is a privately funded group. These groups continue a decadelong tradition of obsession over EMPs, one President Donald Trump and others have picked up on.”
  • India’s daunting challenge: There’s water everywhere, and nowhere – “I am walking across the world. Over the past seven years I have retraced the footsteps of Homo sapiens, who roamed out of Africa in the Stone Age and explored the primordial world. En route, I gather stories. And nowhere on my foot journey—not in any other nation or continent—have I encountered an environmental reckoning on the scale of India’s looming water crisis. It is almost too daunting to contemplate.”
  • Here be black holes – “During the 15th and 16th centuries, when oceans were the spaces between worlds, marine animals, often so prodigious that they were termed sea monsters, were difficult to see and even harder to analyse, their very existence uncertain. Broadly construed, the history of space science is also a story of looking across and into the ocean – that first great expanse of space rendered almost unknowable by an alien environment. Deep space, like the deep sea, is almost inaccessible, with the metaphorical depth of space echoing the literal depth of oceans. These cognitive and psychic parallels also have an analogue in the practicalities of survival, and training for space missions routinely includes stints under water.”
  • Birds bear the warnings but humans are responsible for the global threat – “Bird omens of a sort are the subject of two recent anthropological studies of avian flu preparedness in Asia. Both Natalie Porter, in Viral Economies, and Frédéric Keck, in Avian Reservoirs, convey the ominousness suffusing poultry farming, using birds as predictors. As both demonstrate, studying how birds interact with human agriculture can provide early warnings of a grim future. Indeed, Keck in Avian Reservoirs explicitly compares public-health surveillance (which he studies in the book) to augury, tracing ‘the idea that birds carry signs of the future that humans should learn to read … back to Roman divination.'”
  • Fiction as a window into the ethics of testing the Bomb – “The stuff that surprised me was on the American side. For example, the assessment by Curtis LeMay [the commander who led US air attacks on Japan] where he basically says, “We’ve bombed the shit out of Japan. Hurry up with your atomic bomb, because there’s going to be nothing left if you don’t.” That shocked me, and also that they deliberately left those cities pristine because they wanted to show the devastation. They wanted, I believe, to kill innocent people, because they were already moving on to the Cold War.”
  • The idea of entropy has led us astray – “Perhaps physics, in all its rigors, is deemed less susceptible to social involvement. In truth, though, Darwinian and thermodynamic theories served jointly to furnish a propitious worldview—a suitable ur-myth about the universe—for a society committed to laissez-faire competition, entrepreneurialism, and expanding industry. Essentially, under this view, the world slouches naturally toward a deathly cold state of disorder, but it can be salvaged—illuminated and organized—by the competitive scrabble of creatures fighting to survive and get ahead.”
  • How massive neutrinos broke the Standard Model – “Niels Bohr … had the radical suggestion that maybe energy and momentum weren’t really conserved; maybe they could somehow be lost. But Wolfgang Pauli had a different — arguably, even more radical — thought: that perhaps there was a novel type of particle being emitted in these decays, one that we simply didn’t yet have the capacity to see. He named it “neutrino,” which is Italian for “little neutral one,” and upon hypothesizing it, remarked upon the heresy he had committed: ‘I have done a terrible thing, I have postulated a particle that cannot be detected.'”
  • How a small Arab nation built a Mars mission from scratch in six years – “When the UAE announced in 2014 that it would send a mission to Mars by the country’s 50th birthday in December 2021, it looked like a bet with astronomically tough odds. At the time, the nation had no space agency and no planetary scientists, and had only recently launched its first satellite. The rapidly assembled team of engineers, with an average age of 27, frequently heard the same jibe. ‘You guys are a bunch of kids. How are you going to reach Mars?’ says Sarah Al Amiri, originally a computer engineer and the science lead for the project.”
  • The pandemic has made concentrated reading difficult. How are book reviewers dealing with this? – “To read good and proper, I needed to disconnect from the terrible reality of the present – wishful thinking with the always-on-alert mode that the pandemic thrust upon us. A few pages in, my mind would wander, snapping out of the brief, quiet moment and I’d find myself reaching for my phone. … But as neuroscientists world over have told us, it’s been hard for most people to focus, with our brain in fight-or-flight mode to the threat of the virus. An activity like deep reading is especially difficult because it requires a high level of engagement and quiet. So it wasn’t just me.”
  • Facebook’s employees reckon with the social network they’ve built – “Why was Zuckerberg only talking about whether Trump’s comments fit the company’s rules, and not about fixing policies that allowed for threats that could hurt people in the first place, he asked. ‘Watching this just felt like someone was sort of slowly swapping out the rug from under my feet,’ Wang said. ‘They were swapping concerns about morals or justice or norms with this concern about consistency and logic, as if it were obviously the case that ‘consistency’ is what mattered most.'”
Life notes

Happy Lord of the Rings Day!

The Malazan Book of the Fallen fantasy series exhibited a rabid yet desirable iconoclasm, through which its author Steven Erikson elucidated every trope of epic fantasy and then shit on it. I came out of reading the series feeling like nothing could surprise me anymore except some other Erikson fare. The man himself might not be appreciative of this outcome; the 10-book series was, and is, more like a drug to me than anything else.

At the start of any book you implicitly enter into a covenant with the author that you’ll the read the book in return for being allowed to expect that it will entertain you. This is because books are not allowed to disappoint you – an expectation that’s actually true of every form of art that’s produced for public consumption. The experience of disappointment, even though it’s a common emotion, is not an aspiration. There’s no market nor the (mainstream) aesthetic for it.

At some level, what Erikson ruined for me was the ability to expect to be surprised or entertained by whatever was coming. This is a remarkable thing for the consumption of fantasy to achieve because fantasy is an evacuation from our reality unto a different one more suited to making the author’s point while also not being too contrived (although that’s a hyper-reductive definition). And for millions of people around the world, including myself, the doorway to realising how good fantasy could be was J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Lord of the Rings didn’t succeed by being too whimsical – a trait many simpleminded folk conflate with the fantasy genre – but in fact the opposite. It was tightly knit, gorgeously situated, described and narrated, in a world somewhat different from our own. Its success lay in its storytelling as much as in its seminal nature: Lord of the Rings, for many of us, was the first. It has had and will continue to have a certain quality of primacy associated with readers’ memories of it.

It set many readers’ expectations in terms of what they could expect from the fantasy genre: not frolicking cartoons for children but goddamned epics. The Malazan series took this premise and bled it to death in a beautiful, beautiful way. If Lord of the Rings was the gateway drug for realising, and acknowledging, the potential of fantasy to be assessed in the same league as mainstream literature, the Malazan series is the Manitoba shlimbo.

I’m sure you recognise this post has been a roundabout way of saying Malazan ruined me for other books, and you’re probably wondering, “What a hubristic schmuck.” What a hubristic schmuck indeed. One of the more amazing components of the reading experience that regular book-readers take for granted is the ability to clench your teeth and grind through the more boring parts of a book – a sort of restrained deferment to the idea that though the book may not be entertaining now, entertainment remains in the offing. That’s what I miss being able to do, and that’s the whole difference between plodding slowly through a book and giving up at p. 15 and throwing it away.

Yes, we’re allowed to stop reading books that are boring, but we, especially I, get bored very easily – and I’m almost proud of it because it’s a skill I’ve honed to allow me to quickly spot, and correct, dull news reports. I also need to relearn what it means to make a small cluster of points over 250 pages or more. Reacquiring a habit like reading isn’t easy, particularly if you lost it for the reasons specified above. So to make it easier for me to get back on that wagon, I’m going to start with obviously popular books – often written by white men; first on the list is The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.

So far so good.

Happy Lord of the Rings Day! Quoting verbatim from last year’s post on the same date:

March 25 every year is Lord of the Rings Day – a.k.a. Tolkien Day and Lord of the Rings Reading Day – because, in the books, that’s the day on which the One Ring is taken into the fires of Orodruin (or Mount Doom or Amon Amarth) by Gollum/Smeagol from the finger of Frodo Baggins. It was the year 3019 of the Third Age and augured the end of the War of the Ring.

Watch the films, read the books, talk about it, read about it, write about it. Do whatever it takes you to remember the potential of fantasy fiction to be a legitimate way to survive and cherish our realities.

Featured image credit: aitoff/pixabay.

Life notes

Happy Lord of the Rings Day

Just been having a bad day today – and from the midst of it all, almost forgot to blog about Lord of the Rings Day. I do this every year on the blog (I think), recalling two things: how great Lord of the Rings was, and how even better something else is. Last year, and I’m making no effort to check, it had to have been one of Steven Erikson’s books, possibly from the Malazan series. I’ve got nothing else to add this year. The Malazan series is still the best in my books, and if you’re into epic fantasy fiction and haven’t read it yet: boo. I would also highly recommend the Warcraft lore.

Customary recap: March 25 every year is Lord of the Rings Day – a.k.a. Tolkien Day and Lord of the Rings Reading Day – because, in the books, that’s the day on which the One Ring is taken into the fires of Orodruin (or Mount Doom or Amon Amarth) by Gollum/Smeagol from the finger of Frodo Baggins. It was the year 3019 of the Third Age and augured the end of the War of the Ring. On this day, let’s read a chapter or two from the trilogy and remember what an enlightening experience reading the books was.

Featured image credit: kewl/pixabay

Life notes

A book on the Otherside

I walked into the bookshop. The first row of books had a label on it saying ‘Recommended’. I never touched those books. They were always too mainstream, and populism never read well. Instead, I was adept at finding books that had found mention in some article, review, conversation, somewhere. A book that had caught someone else’s fancy was the book I would find and take home. But today, I decided to find a book that would catch my fancy, a book that would help me start my own conversation instead of helping me join someone else’s.

Soon enough, I found a book in the ‘Fantasy’ section: The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne Harris. And not just Joanne Harris, but Joanne Harris ‘The Bestselling Author’. Hmm. That’s always fishy. I mean, it’s a nice suffix to have but too many authors have that these days. If the author hadn’t been bestselling on some obscure list, then he/she was likely to have had a bestselling book a decade or so ago, or a book published in some other unrelated genre.

But I decided to step past that and moved on to the next part of the review – the blurb. It said the book narrated the events leading up to Ragnarok from the Norse god Loki’s point of view (Loki was never trusted by- you’ve watched Thor: The Dark World, of course). Amazing. I immediately told myself a case could be made for more books such as The Gospel of Loki to be published. The rise of the masses in the 21st century had fortunately united the world on many issues but then had also managed to convince many people that some of those issues had no grey areas. But the grey areas persist and there are all too often stories of redemption as well.

But back to The Gospel. So that was one downvote for ‘The Bestselling Author’ and one upvote for the choice of story. Next up: the foreword. Many of the best books I’ve read either have a foreword by a famous person or one by the author him/herself. I prefer the author to have written the foreword because such a choice reveals the vantage point from which the author has decided to look upon the characters (One of my favorite forewords is by Steven Erikson for his book Gardens of the Moon). However, the discomfiting thing about Joanne Harris’s foreword – which she’d written herself – was that she’d written it as Loki.

What’s more, it interpreted ‘history’ as “his story” and ‘mystery’ as “my story”. What were they? Were they puns? I wasn’t sure. But more than that, “his story” and “my story” showed Joanne Harris had traded in sophistication for… tackiness? It might’ve sold the book for someone else but not me. Then again, it was after all not “his story” but “my story”, Joanne Harris’s story. Penultimate check: price: Rs 399. Ultimate check: opening paragraph. It was about how the world was created out of chaos.

I love creation myths in fiction. Ah, what the hell. Sold. I picked it up, and decided to continue having a look around. I definitely didn’t want to pick up more than the one book – I didn’t care if I’d have the time to read it or not. I didn’t have much money. So I tried my best to keep my glances cursory, my attention desultory. Now, The Gospel of Loki made it harder for me to stop paying attention to the other books. Here in my hand was the sort of book I usually didn’t pick up. It was a book I told myself I’d have to read, in which I’d have to identify something stellar – a character, a sub-plot, even a paragraph – without knowing if it was there or no, which I’d have to judge not against the backdrop of a conversation or even a literary zeitgeist but as a piece of writing of and by itself.

I wasn’t sure if I had the time to just read a book – and one with tacky phrases no less. I tried to think of my last such purchase (An Uncertain Glory) and if I’d read it and kept myself from talking about it (I had, and I had), and if I’d thought it had been a useful experience (again, it had). I asked myself if I’d be able to get the same out of Joanne Harris’s book. I wasn’t sure. And An Uncertain Glory had been by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze. Who was Joanne Harris?

I’d have googled her but realized the Internet pack on my phone had run out. Drat. The book was starting to make less sense. An unknown author, an apparently interesting plot based on the other hand on an old and time-tested story, at a not-exactly-affordable price. Was I doing the right thing? After all, I only had about Rs 600 in my pocket. But what was I doing?! I’d finally picked up a book that had until then lived only in the fringes of my social universe, and now I was already thinking about keeping it back. If I did end up putting it back, I knew I’d never pick up another book of its kind again and go home with it. Because, apparently, nothing was good enough. I’m going home with this and that’s that, I told myself.

And now that I’ve made my choice, let me have a better look around and maybe take home a recommendation for my father (he loves Erle Stanley Gardner and the likes). I spotted Stieg Larsson, Anthony Horowitz, someone branded as the Japanese Stieg Larsson, Robert Ludlum, Arthur Hailey, Agatha Christie, Henning Mankell… nothing – or nobody – very new. But all this looking around wasn’t helping very much. The Gospel of Loki had started to weigh heavy again, and I was doing all I could to keep from looking at the dreary Vonneguts, the unreadable Pynchons, the wishy-washy Murakamis.

Did nobody write great literary entertainment anymore? They could invent splatterpunk but not entertaining literature? I supposed that they had, and that they were the ones mistaken for being repetitive, the ones who were easily mistaken for the one-hit-wonders: Chuck Palahniuk, Arvind Adiga, Yann Martel, Joseph Heller… ah, Joseph Heller. I immediately walked over to ‘H’ and found his books stacked toward the left. Everyone had read Catch-22 and recalled how the senility of its titular hiccup had seeped into the lingua franca.

But I loved Joseph Heller for John Yossarian, Catch-22 the complication’s instrument of enlightenment. There wasn’t a lot on the shelf to go on – Catch-22 (which everyone had read), Closing Time (which I’d read just for more of Yossarian), and one called Something Happened. Weighing as much as a small mountain now, The Gospel of Loki almost fell back into where it had jumped into my hand from. I picked up Something Happened in its stead.

I knew what its author had been ‘The Bestselling Author’ for, I didn’t care for the blurbs or reviews, and I skipped the foreword. I knew a part of me had manipulated me to picking it up, and I also knew I’d probably never pick up para-conversational books again. But at the same time I wouldn’t talk about Something Happened either. The two other books of Heller’s that I’d read were neither conversational mainstays (who wanted to talk about Yossarian?) nor exercises in obscurity. If only for not having to start conversations about “my story” but the hope of finding another Yossarian, I paid for Heller’s book, forewent dinner and walked back home.