Some notes and updates

Four years of the Higgs boson

Missed this didn’t I. On July 4, 2012, physicists at CERN announced that the Large Hadron Collider had found a Higgs-boson-like particle. Though the confirmation would only come in January 2013 (that it was the Higgs boson and not any other particle), July 4 is the celebrated date. I don’t exactly mark the occasion every year except to recap on whatever’s been happening in particle physics. And this year: everyone’s still looking for supersymmetry; there was widespread excitement about a possible new fundamental particle weighing about 750 GeV when data-taking began at the LHC in late May but strong rumours from within CERN have it that such a particle probably doesn’t exist (i.e. it’s vanishing in the new data-sets). Pity. The favoured way to anticipate what might come to be well before the final announcements are made in August is to keep an eye out for conference announcements in mid-July. If they’re made, it’s a strong giveaway that something’s been found.

Live-tweeting and timezones

I’ve a shitty internet connection at home in Delhi which means I couldn’t get to see the live-stream NASA put out of its control room or whatever as Juno executed its orbital insertion manoeuvre this morning. Fortunately, Twitter came to the rescue; NASA’s social media team had done such a great job of hyping up the insertion (deservingly so) that it seemed as if all the 480 accounts I followed were tweeting about it. I don’t believe I missed anything at all, except perhaps the sounds of applause. Twitter’s awesome that way, and I’ll say that even if it means I’m stating the obvious. One thing did strike me: all times (of the various events in the timeline) were published in UTC and EDT. This makes sense because converting from UTC to a local timezone is easy (IST = UTC + 5.30) while EDT corresponds to the US east cost. However, the thing about IST being UTC + 5.30 isn’t immediately apparent to everyone (at least not to me), and every so often I wish an account tweeting from India, such as a news agency’s, uses IST. I do it every time.

New music

I don’t know why I hadn’t found Yat-kha earlier considering I listen to Huun Huur Tu so much, and Yat-kha is almost always among the recommendations (all bands specialising in throat-singing). And while Huun Huur Tu likes to keep their music traditional and true to its original compositional style, Yat-kha takes it a step further, banding its sound up with rock, and this tastes much better to me. With a voice like Albert Kuvezin’s, keeping things traditional can be a little disappointing – you can hear why in the song above. It’s called Kaa-khem; the same song by Huun Huur Tu is called Mezhegei. Bass evokes megalomania in me, and it’s all the more sensual when its rendition is accomplished with human voice, rising and falling. Another example of what I’m talking about is called Yenisei punk. Finally, this is where I’d suggest you stop if you’re looking for throat-singing made to sound more belligerent: I stumbled upon War horse by Tengger Cavalry, classified as nomadic folk metal. It’s terrible.

Fall of Light, a part 2

In fantasy trilogies, the first part benefits from establishing the premise and the third, from the denouement. If the second part has to benefit from anything at all, then it is the story itself, not the intensity of the stakes within its narrative. At least, that’s my takeaway from Fall of Light, the second book of Steven Erikson’s Kharkanas trilogy. Its predecessor, Forge of Darkness, established the kingdom of Kurald Galain and the various forces that shape its peoples and policies. Because the trilogy has been described as being a prequel (note: not the prequel) to Erikson’s epic Malazan Book of the Fallen series, and because of what we know about Kurald Galain in the series, the last book of the trilogy has its work cut out for it. But in the meantime, Fall of Light was an unexpectedly monotonous affair – and that was awesome. As a friend of mine has been wont to describe the Malazan series: Erikson is a master of raising the stakes. He does that in all of his books (including the Korbal Broach short-stories) and he does it really well. However, Fall of Light rode with the stakes as they were laid down at the end of the first book, through a plot that maintained the tension at all times. It’s neither eager to shed its burden nor is it eager to take on new ones. If you’ve read the Malazan series, I’d say he’s written another Deadhouse Gates, but better.

Oh, and this completes one of my bigger goals for 2016.

Talking about science, NCBS

On June 24, I was invited to talk at the NCBS Science Writing Workshop, held every year for 10 days. The following notes are some of my afterthoughts from that talk.

Science journalism online is doing better now than science journalism in print, in India. But before we discuss the many ways in which this statement is true, we need to understand what a science story can be as it is presented in the media. I’ve seen six kinds of science pieces:

1. Scientific information and facts – Reporting new inventions and discoveries, interesting hypotheses, breaking down complex information, providing background information. Examples: first detection of g-waves, Dicty World Race, etc.

2. Processes in science – Discussing opinions and debates, analysing how complex or uncertain issues are going to be resolved, unravelling investigations and experiments. Examples: second detection of g-waves, using CRISPR, etc.

3. Science policy – Questioning/analysing the administration of scientific work, funding, HR, women in STEM, short- and long-term research strategies, etc. Examples: analysing DST budgets, UGC’s API, etc.

4. People of science – Interviewing people, discussing choices and individual decisions, investigating the impact of modern scientific research on those who practice it. **Examples**: interviewing women in STEM, our Kip Thorne piece, etc.

5. Auxiliary science – Reporting on the impact of scientific processes/choices on other fields (typically closer to our daily lives), discussing the economic/sociological/political issues surrounding science but from an economic/sociological/political PoV. Examples: perovskite in solar cells, laying plastic roads, etc.

6. History and philosophy of science – Analysing historical and/or philosophical components of science. Examples: some of Mint on Sunday’s pieces, our columns by Aswin Seshasayee and Sunil Laxman, etc.

Some points:

1. Occasionally, a longform piece will combine all five types – but you shouldn’t force such a piece without an underlying story.

2. The most common type of science story is 5 – auxiliary science – because it is the easiest to sell. In these cases, the science itself plays second fiddle to the main issue.

3. Not all stories cleanly fall into one or the other bin. The best science pieces can’t always be said to be falling in this or that bin, but the worst pieces get 1 and 2 wrong, are misguided about 4 (but usually because they get 1 and 2 wrong) or misrepresent the science in 5.

4. Journalism is different from writing in that journalism has a responsibility to expose and present the truth. At the same time, 1, 2 and 6 stories – presenting facts in a simpler way, discussing processes, and discussing the history and philosophy of science – can be as much journalism as writing because they increase awareness of the character of science.

5. Despite the different ways in which we’ve tried to game the metrics, one thing has held true: content is king. A well-written piece with a good story at its heart may or may not do well – but a well-packaged piece that is either badly written or has a weak story at its centre (or both) will surely flop.

6. You can always control the goodness of your story by doing due diligence, but if you’re pitching your story to a publisher on the web, you’ve to pitch it to the right publisher. This is because those who do better on the web only do better by becoming a niche publication. If a publication wants to please everyone, it has to operate at a very large scale (>500 stories/day). On the other hand, a niche publication will have clearly identified its audience and will only serve that segment. Consequently, only some kinds of science stories – as identified by those niche publications’ preferences in science journalism – will be popular on the web. So know what editors are looking for.