Anil Ananthaswamy in conversation with Anita Nair

I attended an event at the Bangalore International Centre yesterday, Anita Nair in conversation with Anil Ananthaswamy about narrative non-fiction. Anil spoke for 45-55 minutes about what it was like to write his first book, The Edge of Physics (2010), and the different kinds of decisions he had to make as the narrator to keep the book interesting and engaging. Then Anita and Anil had a conversation for 30 minutes about the challenges of constructing narratives in fiction and non-fiction, followed by a short Q&A.

I quite enjoyed the evening because, though it was the third or maybe fourth time I have heard Anil speak about his books, the highlight every time has been the questions people have asked about them and his answers. This occasion was no different; in fact, Anita – who is an accomplished writer of fiction (whose books have been translated into 31 languages, as I and others in the audience discovered yesterday) – was particularly engaging. She was able to focus on the differences and the overlaps between the two kinds of exercises that I personally found illuminating.

The following are some of my notes from their conversation, together with my takes:

§ When Anita asked Anil how he chooses what to write, he said his decisions are almost always driven by curiosity. I thought that is a wonderful place to be in if you are a non-fiction writer: to have the liberty to pursue the stories that interest you, beyond considerations of marketability and the economics of feature-publishing. Anil has been a science journalist for two decades and there is little surprise as to how he got to this place. Nonetheless, his comment merits thinking about how writers and journalists balance the pull of their curiosity with the push(back) of the more pragmatic aspects of their vocation.

§ A quote about science writing from Tim Bradford, former science editor of The Guardian, that Anil recalled: “Never overestimate what the reader knows, never underestimate the reader’s intelligence”. In other words, the difference between you and your readers is simply the amount of information; if presented right, they likely possess the cognitive and intellectual faculties to process it.

§ Anil mentioned (in response to an audience-member’s question, I think) that all three of his books are geared towards making the reader understand what the major unanswered questions (in the respective fields: cosmology, neuroscience, quantum mechanics) are and aren’t concerned with providing a resolution at the end. He had already mentioned towards the close of his talk that he is principally concerned with the bigger picture and getting a grip on where we all come from, etc., but I have never asked him if he consciously set out to write books like this or if the books simply reflect his own curiosity-driven pursuit to understand our universe, so to speak.

Edit: I asked him over email and he said, “I think it’s more a reflection of my own pursuit – the topics that interest me seem to be those for which we are at the cusp of some understanding.”

§ Through Two Doors At Once, Anil’s third book, tracks how our understanding of quantum mechanics evolved by examining multiple iterations of a single experiment created over 200 years ago. Late last year, I prepared to excerpt a few pages from the book for The Wire Science when I realised that this was harder to do the farther I got away from the first chapter (final excerpt here). This was because of the book’s extremely linear narrative; the superlative is warranted because each chapter builds on concepts carefully erected in the previous one, so it would have been nearly impossible for you to start the book from the tenth chapter and understand what was going on. This is partly due to the counterintuitive and complicated nature of quantum mechanics and partly to the author’s decision to frame the narrative around one experiment.

Anil pointed out yesterday that this was in contrast to both The Edge of Physics and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2016), his second book, which follow what I like to call the radial narrative: each chapter begins at the centre of a circle and moves along the radius towards the circumference. But the next chapter doesn’t begin at the circumference; it begins at the centre again, reasserting the theme of the book and moving along another tack to a different point on the circumference. This way, it is possible for the reader to open the book on chapter 10 and understand what is going on; the author is less railroaded and has more room to explore different interpretations of the book’s theme; and editors like me have more portions to consider excerpting from.

§ My favourite part of the conversation was when Anita and Anil were springboarding off of the ideas discussed in his second book, The Man Who Wasn’t There, which examines how – to rephrase Anil – the body and the mind work together to construct the sense of self. Anil does this with a quest through different neurocognitive conditions that affect the mind in unique ways, providing insights into where the person’s sense of ‘I’ could be located in the brain.

I should mention here that this was an interesting passage of conversation but, for the same reason, one in which my neurons were going berserk and I don’t clearly remember how one part connected to another now. However, I do know that the following things were discussed:

  • Anita said that this journey of discovery (in Anil’s book) parallels her own when she is writing a novel. As the work of writing the book progresses, Anita the author gets more and more into the character’s skin so that she can write convincingly about the character’s actions and motivations. However, this process can be uniquely painful when the character molests a child, for example; according to Anita, it felt worse when she was able to make the transition from herself to her character, the child-molester, and slip back out almost effortlessly.
  • This was related to a question about the narrative growing its own legs and, every now and then, leading the author away in unintended directions. Anil said that in his case, it was a factor of how much reporting he had done. That is, the more knowledge and perspectives he had available, the more ideas he could explore in the same story. He also said that such narrative drift (my words) is more likely to happen in fiction than in non-fiction.

This is fascinating. It probably happens more with fiction because the rationale is that it is easier to invent than to infer, and because reality offers to railroad the author in non-fiction. However, narrative drift may not necessarily be more likely in fiction-writing. This is because, in my view, fiction also places a bigger premium on the author’s self-imposed limitations on inventiveness, since Occam’s razor applies equally to both forms of writing. And with fiction, unrestrained inventiveness imposes a greater cost on the story’s readability and even interestingness than unrestrained inference imposes on non-fiction-writing. I am curious to know, therefore, the different causes of narrative drift in fiction and (long-form) non-fiction – assuming there are differences – and how much time authors spend working against them.

Next courses of action: Read The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Cut-Like Wound.

Epstein’s friends from the ‘Reality Club’

New York magazine has published an alphabetised list of the names of people that find mention in Jeffrey Epstein’s ‘black book’, a log book of sorts in which he kept track of the people he entertained, including at his residence and onboard his private jet, both venues of Epstein’s horrible exploitation of young women. The first name on the list is “Allen, Woody” and the last, “Zuckerman, Mort”; somewhere in between, there’s this about the ‘Reality Club’:

What seems new, in flipping through the reams of society photos of perhaps the world’s most prolific sexual predator that have been circulating over the past few weeks, is not the powerful and the beautiful who surrounded Epstein, but the intellectuals — the Richard Dawkinses, the Daniel Dennetts, the Steven Pinkers. All men, of course. But the group selfies probably shouldn’t have been a surprise — documents of an age in which every millionaire doesn’t just fancy himself a philosopher-king but expects to be treated as such, and every public intellectual wants to be seen as a kind of celebrity.

On point. The rituals of scholarship haven’t spared any man from the temptations of misplaced self-importance, if not outright power; in fact, on many occasions they have been the means to accrue it. Just ask Jorge Domínguez, Jeff Galindo, William V. Harris, Jason Lieb, Lawrence Krauss, Michael Katze, Geoff Marcy, Christian Ott, Thomas Pogge, John R. Searle or, perhaps most recently, Inder Verma – all of whom were passively protected by a network of academic institutions that financially benefited from the presence of these men on their campuses even as they continued to sexually harass, allegedly or decidedly, their coworkers and/or students. (Pinker and Dawkins have only helped this conclusion along with their displays of “poor scholarship” and “unthinking certitude”.)

A journey through Twitter and time, with the laws of physics

Say you’re in a dark room and there’s a flash. The light travels outward in all directions from the source, and the illumination seems to expand in a sphere. This is a visualisation of how the information contained in light becomes distributed through space.

But even though this is probably what you’d see if you observed the flash with a very high speed camera, it’s not the full picture. The geometry of the sphere captures only the spatial component of the light’s journey. It doesn’t say anything about the time. We can infer that from how fast the sphere expands but that’s not an intrinsic property of the sphere itself.

To solve this problem, let’s assume that we live in a world with two spatial dimensions instead of three (i.e. length and breadth only, no depth). When the flash goes off in this world, the light travels outward in an expanding circle, which is the two-dimensional counterpart of a sphere. At 1 second after the flash, say the circle is 2 cm wide. After 2 seconds, it’s 4 cm wide. After 3 seconds, it’s 8 cm wide. After 4 seconds, it’s 16 cm wide. And so forth.

If you photographed the circles at each of these moments and put the pictures together, you’d see something like this (not to scale):

And if you looked at this stack of circles from under/behind, you’d see what physicists call the light cone.

Credit: Stib/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The cone is nothing but a stack of circles of increasing diameter. The circumference of each circle represents the extent to which the light has spread out in space at that time. So the farther into the future of an event – such as the flash – you go, the wider the light cone will be.

(The reason we assumed we live in a world of two dimensions instead of three should be clearer now. In our three-dimensional reality, the light cone would assume a four-dimensional shape that can be quite difficult to visualise.)

According to the special theory of relativity, all future light cones must be associated with corresponding past light cones, and light always flows from the past to the future.

To understand what this means, it’s important to understand the cones as exclusionary zones. The diameter of the cone at a specific time is the distance across which light has moved in that time. So anything that moves slower – such as a message written on a piece of paper tied to a rock thrown from A to B – will be associated with a narrower cone between A and B. If A and B are so far apart that even light couldn’t have spanned them in the given time, then B is going to be outside the cone emerging from A, in a region officially called elsewhere.

Now, light is just one way to encode information. But since nothing can move faster than at the speed of light, the cones in the diagram above work for all kinds of information, i.e. any other medium will simply be associated with narrower cones but the general principles as depicted in the diagram will hold.

For example, here’s something that happened on Twitter earlier today. I spotted the following tweet at 9.15 am:

When scrolling through the replies, I noticed that one of Air Vistara’s senior employees had responded to the complaint with an apology and an assurance that it would be fixed.

Taking this to be an admission of guilt, and to an admission of there actually having been a mistake by proxy, I retweeted the tweet at 9.16 am. However, only a minute later, another account discovered that the label of ‘professor’ didn’t work with the ‘male’ option either, ergo the glitch didn’t have so much to do with the user’s gender as much as the algorithm was just broken. A different account brought this to my attention at 9.30 am.

So here we have two cones of information that can be recast as the cones of causality, intersecting at @rath_shyama’s tweet. The first cone of causality is the set of all events in the tweet’s past whose information contributed to it. The second cone of causality represents all events in whose past the tweet lies, such as @himdaughter’s, the other accounts’ and my tweets.

As it happens, Twitter interferes with this image of causality in a peculiar way (Facebook does, too, but not as conspicuously). @rath_shyama published her tweet at 8.02 am, @himdaughter quote-tweeted her at 8.16 am and I retweeted @himdaughter at 9.16 am. But by 9.30 am, the information cone had expanded enough for me to know that my retweet was possibly mistaken. Let’s designate this last bit of information M.

So if I had un-retweeted @himdaughter’s tweet at, say, 9.31 am, I would effectively have removed an event from the timeline that actually occurred before I could have had the information to act on it (i.e., M). The issue is that Twitter doesn’t record (at least not publicly anyway) the time at which people un-retweet tweets. If it had, then there would have been proof that I acted in the future of M; but since it doesn’t, it will look like I acted in the past of M. Since this is causally impossible, the presumption arises that I had the information about M before others did, which is false.

This serves as an interesting commentary on the nature of history. It is not possible for Twitter’s users to remember historical events on its platform in the right order simply because Twitter is memoryless when it comes to one of the actions it allows. As a journalist, therefore, there is a bit of comfort in thinking about the pre-Twitter era, when all newsworthy events were properly timestamped and archived by the newspapers of record.

However, I can’t let my mind wander too far back, lest I stagger into the birth of the universe, when all that existed was a bunch of particles.

We commonly perceive that time has moved forward because we also observe useful energy becoming useless energy. If nothing aged, if nothing grew weaker or deteriorated in material quality – if there was no wear-and-tear – we should be able to throw away our calendars and pretend all seven days of the week are the same day, repeated over and over.+

Scientists capture this relationship between time and disorderliness in the second law of thermodynamics. This law states that the entropy – the amount of energy that can’t be used to perform work – of a closed system can never decrease. It can either remain stagnant or increase. So time does not exist as an entity in and of itself but only seems to as a measure of the increase in entropy (at a given temperature). We say a system has moved away from a point in its past and towards a point in its future if its entropy has gone up.

However, while this works just fine with macroscopic stuff like matter, things are a bit different with matter’s smallest constituents: the particles. There are no processes in this realm of the quantum whose passage will tell you which way time has passed – at least, there aren’t supposed to be.

There’s a type of particle called the B0 meson. In an experiment whose results were announced in 2012, physicists found unequivocal proof that this particle transformed into another one faster than the inverse process. This discrepancy provides an observer with a way to tell which way time is moving.

The experiment also remains the only occasion till date on which scientists have been able to show that the laws of physics don’t apply the same forward and backward in time. If they did, the forward and backward transformations would have happened at the same rate, and an observer wouldn’t have been able to tell if she was watching the system move into the future or into the past.

But with Twitter, it would seem we’re all clearly aware that we’re moving – inexorably, inevitably – into the future… or is that the past? I don’t know.

+ And if capitalism didn’t exist: in capitalist economies, inequality always seems to increase with time.

An award that isn’t

ISRO just put out a call for a one-time space journalism award, named for Vikram Sarabhai, with a cash prize of Rs 5 lakh. Here’s the doc with all the details. Pay attention to (4), where it says submissions will be judged on the basis of “articles/success stories”:

In other words (and especially in the absence of organised information about ISRO’s missions to work with), this is a call for articles that make ISRO look good, even if it hasn’t been good in many ways in the last 18-24 months. For example, ISRO’s official Twitter handle recently wished Akshay Kumar, Bollywood actor and unabashed Hindutva supporter, for the release of his upcoming film ‘Mission Mangal’. Its trailer has already been lampooned for its unabashed absurdity. For another, since early 2018, there has been a marked decline in the level of access journalists have had to ISRO insiders, and the spokesperson has also been becoming more unresponsive; others have also complained about ISRO’s newsletters being suspended without any notice.

Now, ISRO has invited applicants for what is really the Vikram Sarabhai Obsequious Space Journalism Award.

Two things further get my goat via-à-vis the award.

First: India’s media landscape is really fragmented right now, and many parts of it are either brazenly sucking up to the government or are deferring to the government’s might and publishing only decidedly optimistic stories (even to the point of contrivance). As a result, a media boycott – which in other circumstances would have been compelling – is out of the question. ISRO will have no shortage of applications for its award, and some journalists who are really stenographers of government-issue press releases are going to walk away with Rs 6 lakh.

Second: the name of ‘Vikram Sarabhai’ has always been earmarked for use by the Department of Space. But by attaching it to an award that doesn’t celebrate the goodness of good journalism but its antithesis, it feels like ISRO has acted against what the name has stood for: integrity. Sarabhai’s legacy is not ISRO as much as ISRO’s famous working culture; to use the words of a former employee, the org. has always doled out “promotions … based on performance instead of seniority and/or vacancy”. But on this occasion, the award – at least according to the phrasing in the doc – is set to promote not performance but servility.

The romance of us, as seen from the Moon

Note: This post was written before the Chandrayaan 2 launch, which happened at 2.43 pm IST today.

We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of walking on the Moon and we are excited about landing on the Moon for the first time.

These sentences are not out of chronological order nor are they false or mistaken. They are both true because the first ‘we’ and the second ‘we’ are not synonymous. They represent two different identities, and of the same individual if she is Indian: we – humans – are celebrating the 50th anniversary of walking on the Moon and we – Indians – are excited about landing on the Moon for the first time.

Neil Armstrong, the first human on the Moon, was moved by the sight of Earth beyond the satellite’s horizon, a blue-green orb cradled by long stretches of darkness on every side and which he could blot out by closing one eye and holding his thumb up. He saw no borders, no contested lines on land or water, but all of humanity occupying the surface of a tiny marble, with only each other for company in a very, very empty universe. Some have celebrated this as the unexpected legacy of Apollo 11: the birth of an image that inspires us to stay united. But this is much easier said than done, and not always for bad reasons.

Chandrayaan 2 is a case in point. Its very existence alerts us to our Indianness as separate from, rather a subset of, humanity. It reminds us gently that arbitrary lines do crisscross the face of Earth and that we Indians are decidedly on one side of some of those lines, as are the Americans, the Chinese, the French and the Russians. We may all seem to be in this together when seen from the Moon but we are not when seen from Earth, and this is perhaps the only vantage point that matters.

Armstrong’s comments were well ahead of his time, or even ours, because they dream of a world where one human going to the Moon is the same as all humans going to the Moon. It is a utopian reimagination of how spaceflight or even all of science works. It skips over some of the biggest problems assailing humanity today, instead suggesting the weight of loneliness our cosmos has imposed on Earth will alone suffice to bend the arc of justice down to where it belongs.

This will never happen. It is impossible to believe that it could if only because the arc of justice does not budge until it is acted upon by the very people it affects. It is impossible to believe humanity has been on the Moon when the only way a non-American person can get up there is by slogging it out through their own national space programmes. And this should be no surprise when it is impossible to overlook the inequities that mar the face of Earth, which seem no less invisible from the ground than they would be through the eyes of a white American man on the Moon.

Photo by Flickr on

Consider a scientist from the developing world. Let’s say he is a male, English-speaking middle-class Brahmin so we can set aside the ceaseless discrimination the scientific community’s non-male, non-Hindu/non-upper-caste, non-heterosexual, Indian-language-speaking members face for the sake of our discussion; of course, the picture has already been oversimplified. He has access to some instruments, a few good labs, not many good mentors, irregular funding, not enough travel grants, subpar employment prospects, insufficient access to journals, lives in a polluted city with uneven public transport, rising costs of living, less water to spare and rising medical bills.

If at this juncture we reinstate the less privileged Indian in this matrix, it becomes a near-chaotic picture of personal, social, economic and political problems. Even then, it is still only the substrate upon which international inequities – such as access to samples from other parts of India and the world, information published in journals that libraries can’t afford or exclusion from the editorial boards of scientific journals – will come to bear. Finally, there is climate change and its discomfiting history.

In this regard, there seems to be an awkward knot in our collective national imagination, at least in principle. It is as a confrontation between the reflex to celebrate the Apollo 11 mission and embrace the opportunity it affords to transcend for once the issues that divide us, and in the same moment acknowledge India’s impending first attempt to soft-land a suite of mostly passive instruments on the Moon. Art, music, cinema and fantasy could help unknot it.

(It might also help to remember that the romance of having a man on the Moon itself was the product of a perceived politico-ideological imbalance. And it was perceived so strongly that it disregarded overwhelming public opinion even as, over time, it began to invent justifications for itself through iffy economics and misplaced nostalgia.)

So then, who are we? Are we human or are we something else? If you were swayed by the messages of humanitarianism on July 16 and July 20, you were also reconceived by yourself as much as everyone else as an individual of the Homo sapiens of Earth. If you were swayed by the messages of nationalism on July 15 and perhaps will be on July 22, there will be no escaping the reminders of your Indianness.

However, it is not immediately clear how one could embrace both without situating them in a hierarchy of progression: our cultural-sexual-political-social-economic identity first, biological next, and envision the endeavours of humankind as a journey from one stage to the next, when one human walking on, say, Ganymede, will truly stand for all humans walking on Ganymede. But until then, for good or for bad, but mostly for good, we walk separate paths, acknowledge the lines between us and work to make them as invisible on the ground as they are from the Moon.

The Wire
July 22, 2019

Prestige journals and their prestigious mistakes

On June 24, the journal Nature Scientific Reports published a paper claiming that Earth’s surface was warming by more than what non-anthropogenic sources could account for because it was simply moving closer to the Sun. I.e. global warming was the result of changes in the Earth-Sun distance. Excerpt:

The oscillations of the baseline of solar magnetic field are likely to be caused by the solar inertial motion about the barycentre of the solar system caused by large planets. This, in turn, is closely linked to an increase of solar irradiance caused by the positions of the Sun either closer to aphelion and autumn equinox or perihelion and spring equinox. Therefore, the oscillations of the baseline define the global trend of solar magnetic field and solar irradiance over a period of about 2100 years. In the current millennium since Maunder minimum we have the increase of the baseline magnetic field and solar irradiance for another 580 years. This increase leads to the terrestrial temperature increase as noted by Akasofu [26] during the past two hundred years.

The New Scientist reported on July 16 that Nature has since kickstarted an “established process” to investigate how a paper with “egregious errors” cleared peer-review and was published. One of the scientists it quotes says the journal should retract the paper if it wants to “retain any credibility”, but the fact that it cleared peer-review in the first place is to me the most notable part of this story. It is a reminder that peer-review has a failure rate as well as that ‘prestige’ titles like Nature can publish crap; for instance, look at the retraction index chart here).

That said, I am a little concerned because Scientific Reports is an open-access title. I hope it didn’t simply publish the paper in exchange for a fee like its less credible counterparts.

Almost as if it timed it to the day, the journal ScienceNature‘s big rival across the ocean – published a paper that did make legitimate claims but which brooks disagreement on a different tack. It describes a way to keep sea levels from rising due to the melting of Antarctic ice. Excerpt:

… we show that the [West Antarctic Ice Sheet] may be stabilized through mass deposition in coastal regions around Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers. In our numerical simulations, a minimum of 7400 [billion tonnes] of additional snowfall stabilizes the flow if applied over a short period of 10 years onto the region (~2 mm/year sea level equivalent). Mass deposition at a lower rate increases the intervention time and the required total amount of snow.

While I’m all for curiosity-driven research, climate change is rapidly becoming a climate emergency in many parts of the world, not least where the poorer live, without a corresponding set of protocols, resources and schemes to deal with it. In this situation, papers like this – and journals like Science that publish them – only make solutions like the one proposed above seem credible when in fact they should be trashed for implying that it’s okay to keep emitting more carbon into the atmosphere because we can apply a band-aid of snow over the ice sheet and postpone the consequences. Of course, the paper’s authors acknowledge the following:

Operations such as the one discussed pose the risk of moral hazard. We therefore stress that these projects are not an alternative to strengthening the efforts of climate mitigation. The ambitious reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is and will be the main lever to mitigate the impacts of sea level rise. The simulations of the current study do not consider a warming ocean and atmosphere as can be expected from the increase in anthropogenic CO2. The computed mass deposition scenarios are therefore valid only under a simultaneous drastic reduction of global CO2 emissions.

… but these words belong in the last few lines of the paper (before the ‘materials and methods’ section), as if they were a token addition to what reads, overall, like a dispassionate analysis. This is also borne out by the study not having modelled the deposition idea together with falling CO2 emissions.

I’m a big fan of curiosity-driven science as a matter of principle. While it seemed hard at first to reconcile my emotions on the Science paper with that position, I realised that I believe both curiosity- and application-driven research should still be conscientious. Setting aside the endless questions about how we ought to spend the taxpayers’ dollars – if only because interfering with research on the basis of public interest is a terrible idea – it is my personal, non-prescriptive opinion that research should still endeavour to be non-destructive (at least to the best of the researchers’ knowledge) when advancing new solutions to known problems.

If that is not possible, then researchers should acknowledge that their work could have real consequences and, setting aside all pretence of being quantitative, objective, etc., clarify the moral qualities of their work. This the authors of the Science paper have done but there are no brownie points for low-hanging fruits. Or maybe there should be considering there has been other work where the authors of a paper have written that they “make no judgment on the desirability” of their proposal (also about climate geo-engineering).

Most of all, let us not forget that being Nature or Science doesn’t automatically make what they put out better for having been published by them.

Why covering ISRO is a pain

The following is a bulleted list of reasons why covering developments on the Indian spaceflight programme can be nerve-wracking.

  • ISRO does not have a media engagement policy that lays out when it will communicate information to journalists and how, so there is seldom a guarantee of correctness when reporting developing events
  • ISRO’s updates themselves are haphazard: sometimes they’re tweeted, sometimes they’re issued as singles lines on their websites, sometimes there’s a ‘media release’, sometimes there’s a PIB release, and so on
  • As opposed to the organisation itself, ISRO members can be gabby – but you can never tell exactly who is going to be gabby or when
  • Some ISRO scientists insert important information in the middle of innocuous speeches delivered at minor events in schools and colleges
  • Every once in a while, one particular publication will become ‘blessed’ with sources within the org. and churn out page after page of updates+
  • Like the male superstars of Tamil cinema, ISRO benefits from the pernicious jingoism it is almost always surrounded with but does nothing to dispel it (cf. the mental cost of walking some beats over others)
  • There is a policy that says employees of Indian institutions don’t have to seek the okay of their superiors to speak to the press unless when speaking ill; ISRO’s own and more stringent policy supersedes it
  • There are four ways to acquire any substantive information (beyond getting close to officials and following the ‘blessed’ publications): bots that crawl the domain looking for PDFs, Q&A records of the Lok/Rajya Sabha, Indian language newspapers that cover local events, and former employees
  • If a comprehensive history of ISRO exists, it is bound to be in someone’s PhD thesis, locked up in the annals of a foreign publication or found scattered across the Indian media landscape, so covering ISRO has to be a full-time job that leaves room or time for little else
  • Information, and even commentary, will flow freely when everything is going well; when shit hits the fan, there is near-complete silence
  • In similar vein, journalists publishing any criticism of ISRO almost never hear from any officials within the org.
  • (A relatively minor point in this company) I don’t think anyone knows what the copyright restrictions on ISRO-produced images and videos are, so much so that NASA’s images of ISRO’s assets are easier to use

+ I say this without disparaging the journalist, who must have worked hard to cultivate such a network. The problem is that ISRO has constantly privileged such networks over more systematic engagement, forcing journalists to resort to access journalism.

Firstpost’s selfish journalism

I’m sure you’ve heard of the concept of false balance, which is based on the conviction that there are two sides to every story even when there aren’t or when it’s not clear to anyone what the other side is. I’m also sure you’re aware of how journalism based on false balance can legitimise fake news and pseudoscience, as we used to see so often with climate change until the mid-2010s.

The problem with believing there exists a balance between two viewpoints where there is actually none is rooted in the belief that both points are equally valid, which in turn is rooted in ignorance and/or prejudice. However, it would appear there is another form of false-balance reportage that is rooted in selfishness and/or apathy – one where a publication publishes an article that, at some point, acknowledges that A and B are not equally valid but whose headline and lede declare that they are. Here’s a fresh example from Firstpost:

The lede goes thus:

After months of delay in its launch, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) said that the country’s second moon mission — the Rs 800 crore ‘Chandrayaan-2’ — is designed to hunt for deposits of Helium-3 — a waste-free nuclear energy that could answer many of Earth’s energy problems.

Chandrayaan 2 isn’t going to prospect the Moon for helium-3, or any other potential sources of clean energy for that matter, if only because we don’t have the wherewithal to use such materials to produce energy. Second, the problem with C2, as with many of ISRO’s space science missions at the moment, is that there is no roadmap. I don’t know what or who Firstpost‘s sources were for it to have pieced together this BS.

However, after talking about this as if any of it made sense, the article quotes my article in The Wire to say “even if we are successful in bringing back huge deposits of Helium-3 from the moon, we are far away from having the technology to harness it”.

So what has Firstpost done here? a) It reignited the pseudo-debate over ISRO’s non-existent plans to mine the Moon for helium-3; b) it re-legitimised Sivan’s, and others’, ridiculous point of view that India should lead the way in this endeavour; and, most importantly, c) it cashed in on the fallacy even as it suggested it may have recognised that the helium-3 story is erected entirely on speculation and daydreams.

In effect, this is nauseatingly selfish and, insofar as it is journalism, apathetic. It does not have the public interest in mind; in fact, it completely disregards it. And in case someone demands to know how I can claim to know better than K. Sivan, who claimed last year that it’s important for India to be at the forefront of helium-3 mining, only that anecdote about what Bertrand Russell – a staunch atheist – would say should he come face to face with god comes to mind: “Well, I would say that you did not provide much evidence.”

Diversifying into other beats

I delivered my annual talk AMA at the NCBS science writing workshop yesterday. While the questions the students asked were mostly the same as last year (and the year before that), I also took the opportunity to request them to consider diversifying into other subjects. Most, if not all, journalists entering India’s science journalism space every year want to compose stories about the life sciences and/or ecology. As a result, however, while there are numerous journalists to write about issues in these areas, there are fewer than a handful to deal with developments in all the other ones – from theoretical particle physics to computer science to chemical engineering.

This gives the impression to the consumers of journalism that research in these areas isn’t worth writing about or, more perniciously, that developments in these areas aren’t to be discussed (and debated, if need be) in the public domain. And this in turn contributes to a vicious cycle, where “there no stories about physics” and “there is no interest in publishing stories about physics” successively keep readers/editors and the journalists, resp., at bay.

However, from an editor’s perspective, the problem has an eminently simple solution: induct and then publish reporters producing work on research on these subjects. This doesn’t always have to be of newly minted producers but could also benefit from existing ones actively diversifying into beats other than their first choices over the course of a few years.

This sort of diversification doesn’t happen regularly but if it does, it could also benefit younger journalists who are looking to make their presence felt. For example, it’s easier to stand out from the crowd writing about, say, semiconductor fabrication than about ecological research (although this isn’t to say one is more important than the other). When more such writing is produced, editors also stand to gain because they can offer readers a more even coverage of research in the country instead of painting a lopsided picture.

One might argue that there needs to be demand from readers as well, but the relationship between editors and readers isn’t a straightforward demand-supply contest. If that were the case, the news would have become synonymous with populist drivel a long time ago. Instead, it’s more about progressively creating newer interests in the longer run that are a combination of informative and interesting. Put one way, this means the editor should be able to bypass the ‘interestedness indicator’ once in a while to publish stories that readers didn’t know they needed (such as The Wire‘s piece on quantum biology earlier this month).

Such a thing obviously wouldn’t be possible without journalists pitching stories other than what they usually do, and of course editors who have signalled that they are willing to take such risks.

The usefulness of good grammar

Why is good grammar important?

In the Indian mainstream media at least, it appears that readers won’t penalise reporters and editors for imperfect use of grammar and punctuation. To be clear, they will notice – and many will avoid – bad writing; at the same time, readers are unlikely to credit articles that got their grammar and punctuation pitch-perfect. In short, good grammar doesn’t seem to improve return-on-investment but bad grammar reduces it.

This isn’t surprising: English has always been much of India’s second language, especially among its middle class. The premium placed on perfect grammar is much lower than that placed on simply being fluent with the language at the intermediary level. In most instances, in fact, the value of better grammar is and remains an unknown-unknown.

However, what I like most about perfecting the use of grammar and punctuation is that doing so provides a sort of polish to the text that greatly improves its readability. This is somewhat like the attention Apple pays to the UX of its iPhones: it isn’t just that the hardware-software synergy is excellent or that the designs make the UI look exquisite; it is that, like good grammar, Apple ensures the tiniest details are in line with the overarching experiential philosophy, so that the user moves with equal ease through different parts of the phone. In the same way, without good grammar, the text becomes a bit of a bumpy ride.

It’s the cost of this bumpiness that seems to determine whether or not better grammar is linked to the publisher’s stature.

Within the iPhone metaphor, design perfection is closely associated with the iPhone’s reputation as a premium item, the same way the appropriate use of language is associated with publications like The Baffler and The New York Review of Books (but not The New Yorker, for reasons described here), which bank on literary as well as narrative correctness to appear, and read, classy.

However, this aesthetic is seemingly confined to mainstream publications in the West and, in India, to magazines that are okay with presenting the sort of English that is as classy to the discerning reader as it seems elitist to the one who hasn’t spent a lifetime among books. To the latter, text laden with the uneven use of grammar isn’t bumpy reading at all as much as something that reads just fine. So the publisher that publishes such writing isn’t penalised for it.

Then again, is it fair to judge grammar’s value according to its financial implications? It makes sense with iPhone and design: a flawed UX is quite likely to precipitate a decline in sales, and sales is what Apple – like any corporation – lives for. It also makes sense if you have a publisher like Times of India in mind. But how do things work at The Wire?

As with any nonprofit news publication that runs on donations from readers, good grammar and punctuation offer The Wire a way to render our articles more gratifying as long as the exercise remains cost-effective. But when it comes in the way of a more valuable target, such as higher volume, it becomes secondary if only because our resources are painfully finite. To prevent this from happening in the longer run, we must couple the quality of writing with the notion of public interest itself. So we come to the more important question: could good grammar be in the public interest?

At first, good grammar seems almost unnecessary, indulgent even, until you consider the connections between good writing and thinking. Being able to compose complex sentences anticipates room to compose complex thoughts and allows us to assimilate complex ideas. We may not need language itself to think, but insofar as we wish to instrumentalise the communication of complex ideas as a weapon against anti-intellectualism, we must become and remain fluent with how grammar and punctuation allow us to nearly exactly communicate semantic formations constructed by the mind.

In fact, it would be safe to dispense with the “nearly” as well: we cannot communicate ideas more complicated than what our language affords us. Therefore, the more versatile our language is and the better we are able to use it, the more opportunities we give ourselves to accommodate new ideas and fight against bad ones.

There are limitations, of course, such as with a lot of academic writing these days that is dense for density’s sake. But short of that, not making efforts to improve the way we use the rules of grammar and the opportunities of punctuation could mire us deeper and deeper, in a world becoming more vast by the day, in knowledge that is only becoming more stale and – as many scholars have recognised – in attitudes more anti-intellectual. Of course, not everything there is to learn has to be so complicated and most of us will almost certainly expend our lives still exploring the simpler realms, but in the overarching scheme, exposing ourselves to the more challenging aspects of language will equip us to go wherever we may as a society.

This is also an admittedly circuitous justification for the continued use of good grammar – given humankind’s now-famously short attention span – and one that we may not always remember on the level of the day-to-day. But just as with good grammar, the usefulness of good grammar only shows itself with prolonged use, and this should be easier to remember.