Curious Bends  –  the history of the zero, flooding Asia’s rivers, maddening imprisonments and more

1. Was the zero really reinvented in India?

The academic and scientific environment in India leaves a lot to be desired. Nonetheless, many Indians are sated on the copious vestiges of the past, one of which is a claim to the invention of the zero. How true is that claim? The investigation takes the reader from Switzerland to Babylon and then from Rajasthan to Cambodia to reveal a bizarre story. (27 min read)

2. Climate change will increase flow in Asia’s big rivers

Climate change will affect emerging nations the most. Apart from slowing down economic growth, it also exacerbates their under-preparedness by threatening to disrupt ecosystems that support millions. In fact, the five big river systems of Asia that are fed by Himalayan glaciers—of the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong—together support 1.3 billion people. According to a new study, climate change will increase water flow in them until 2050. Are policymakers prepared to confront how this will alter cropping calendars? (2 min read)

3. Suicide statistics, squalor & recidivism haven’t ended solitary confinement

Delve into the deceptively placid world of solitary confinement, its passions-packed history, the costs of running them, and the emotional and psychological damage it inflicts on those who underwent it. There is no alternative to the strong prose in this piece, so sample this: “One winter in Shawangunk, in Ulster County, NY, two inmates on either side of his cell devised a simple game. From morning to night, as Billy watched, envelopes of excrement went from one side to the other, careering past his cell like hockey pucks flying into a revolting space-time dimension. Most of the projectiles landed, and remained, just outside his cell door. After several days, he yelled: ‘If you have a beef with each other, go at it like men. Don’t do this bozo shit!’ … They came up with a new game. For five long weeks, they tirelessly banged on Billy’s cell with their sneakers.” (40 min read)

+ The writer, Shruti Ravindran, is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist. She recently graduated from Columbia University.

4. The amazing micro-engineered, water-repelling surface that lives outside your window

The curious incident of water-repelling leaves in the garden inspires two physicists to explore how some leaves in nature are superhydrophobic—that is, completely water-averse. Using a high-speed camera and some high school math and physics, they show how this cool effect comes about. (7 min read)

5. An interview of T.V. Jayan, science editor of The Telegraph (India)

This interview was published in 2011. However, Jayan’s views on science journalism in India are no less pertinent. He talks about understanding science, misreporting, sensationalisation and ethics. He has advice for aspiring science journalists, too: “Read, read and read.” (9 min read)

Interactive story of the week

Immerse yourself in the wonderful story lives of Vumbi pride of lions at the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Produced by National Geographic, the story has 23 short chapters and a compassionate aesthetic to help you understand the complex lives these animals lead, how they grow up, how they hunt, why they eat what they eat, the tribes that live around them, the people who kill them and what we can do to help them. The Vumbi might have provided narrative fodder but their stories are true for every lion in the wild.

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 11.33.10

We received many helpful replies to our survey (if you filled it out, thank you!). One popular request was to send out Curious Bends twice a week, and we’re going to give that a try.

If you have any suggestions or other feedback, send them to curiousbends@gmail.com. You can also find Akshat and Mukunth on Twitter. Have a nice week!

Advertisements

An attempt at setting the information balance right

The problem is not that there is too much information, but that there is too little of the right kind

In his brilliant book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson shows through many examples how history often credits the wrong person. They show how being in the right place at the right time or publishing your ideas in the right publication so that the right people notice them is some times more important than having the idea.

For instance, today the great astronomer Edward Hubble is credited to have discovered that we live in an ever-expanding universe. However, it was an astronomer with the cheerily intergalactic name Vesto Slipher who should have got the credit.

PSM_V31_D740_Carl_Wilhelm_Scheele
Carl Scheele (Credit: Wikimedia)

Or take the example of Carl Scheele, a Swedish chemist, who discovered eight new elements—oxygen, nitrogen, chlorine, fluorine, manganese, barium, molybdenum and tungsten—and received credit for none of them. His work was either overlooked or made it late to publication after someone else had made the same discovery independently. The credit instead went to chemists of the English-speaking world.

And, if you’re still not convinced, try Josiah Willard Gibbs, who Bryson calls the “most brilliant person that most people have never heard of”. Between 1875 and 1878 he produced a series of papers on the thermodynamic principles of nearly everything but published them in the Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Science, a journal that “managed to be obscure even in Connecticut”. Although Gibbs was recognised later in life, most of the work he did remained hidden for too long at great cost to the scientific enterprise.

Information games

The reason I am telling you all this is not just because it is interesting, but also because there is a lesson we can learn from these examples. All three scientists who got scooped lived in the age when information was scarce and the fastest it travelled was at the speed of a moving vehicle. 

We live in the age of information excess and the fastest it travels is the fastest it will ever travel (ie at the speed of light). However, we are still stuck with one problem that those gentlemen of the 19th century faced and perhaps it has become worse—who receives what information matters even more today. With the internet throwing up interesting things on our screens every day, are we getting the information we really need?

I’ll explain the problem with two examples. The first comes from how we learn history. This came to my attention during my first months in Oxford. Ask any non-Indian what they thought about British colonisation of India and you got a view that was quite different to what I was taught in school in India.

Partisan views

Most people acknowledged that there was imperial excess. They bemoaned the human cost of the partition between India and Pakistan, for instance. But they, particularly British friends, also praised how the British gave Indians railways, law and order, the English language, and, some even suggested, the Indian identity. Most importantly, they saw Indian independence as British leaving India. This was a time, one said, that Britain was relinquishing control of other colonies too following the troubles that World War II had caused for Britain domestically.

Sardar Patel. Credit: Govt of India
Sardar Patel. Credit: Govt of India

This wasn’t what I was taught in school. Indian textbooks glorify the independence struggle, it seemed. I was surrounded by some of the smartest people I had ever met, and instead of questioning them I had to go back and read history. What I realised soon though was that neither my British friends nor I had quite the balanced view that one ought to have of this important period in world history.

I wasn’t expecting my British friends to know about Mangal Pandey or Bhagat Singh, but I thought they would be aware of the Quit India Movement and Jallianwallah Bagh massacre. That they would recognise the importance of the role of freedom fighters, such as Sardar Patel, in accelerating India’s independence. Equally, I suspect my British friends thought I should have more appreciation for the things the British left in India.

The point here is that where the information came from changed how people viewed the world. In this case the topic was a well-studied period of history, and so I was able to educate myself enough to get a balanced view. But what about more recent events?

History’s value

In The Sceptical Patriot, Sidin Vadukut analysed history textbooks used by Indian kids today. He found that none of them devote any space to post-Independence period. Beyond a little bit on the Indian constitution, there is nothing about the wars with Pakistan and China or about the Naxal movement, which is considered the greatest threat to India’s internal security.

Why should Indian kids learn about this stuff? Vadukut’s story might give you an answer:

Sometime in 2002 or 2003, a group of Japanse Hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivors, visited Chennai. The city was a stop on what I think was a global tour to promote peace and condemn nuclear weapons. They decided to visit a primary school and tell the students why the idea of nuclear weapons was a bad one.

I read about the school visit in one of the local newspapers. I don’t recall which one, and no amount of searching online has thrown up the original news report. But the broad details of what happened are seared into my mind.

After the presentation, the Hibakusha asked the children:  should countries go to war? No, they all said in chorus. Should countries use nuclear weapons? No. Should India use nuclear weapons? Never. What if the enemy is Pakistan? Oh, Pakistan is a special case, the kids said, we should totally nuke them.

Every time I retell this story at a public forum, there is an explosion of laughter followed by an awkward silence.

Absence of proper facts

This brings me to the second example, which is closer to me—science journalism. The media landscape of the west is changing. The old media houses are losing audience and revenue at such a pace that it feels like a crisis. The first to lose their jobs in such cases tend to be specialist journalists such as those covering science, environment and health. Sometimes the sections live on, but they shrink in size and depth. The reporting gets done by general reporters instead.

There have been some positive changes with new media organisations trying to fill the gap. And despite all that, even with shrinking newsrooms, western media’s science coverage remains so much better than Indian media’s. A survey I did a few years ago of Indian newspapers gives the same results today—proper science reporting doesn’t exist.

This is a problem. Most of the time if you come across a science story in Indian newspapers, it happens to be one from an international wire service, such as AP, Reuters or The Guardian. Despite the international nature of science, Indian readers are fed the writing of western journalists. The stories become less relevant and thus less interesting. While the hard-science stories are still somewhat valuable, those about the environment, health or even technology aren’t.

This matters because policy depends on the quality of information that decision-makers get. One more example from Vadukut’s book makes that case absolutely clear. In March 2008, Daggubati Purandeswari, the then minister of state for human resource development, when talking about India’s education system, parroted “facts” about Indians abroad, which had been forwarded in a hoax chain email.

“Sir, as rightly pointed out by the honourable member, our students have been placed very well globally. For example 12% scientists in the United States are Indians. We have 38% if the doctors in the US who are again Indians. 36% of NASA scientists are again Indians. So, the students are doing very well, and they are reaching places which again reflects on the quality of education that is being provided to our children in the country.”

All of these “facts” can be easily verified as being false, but the honourable MP did not think she needed to do that. Her words were then reported in Times of India the next day as “facts”. And that is how facts get made up.

Science suffers

That aside, had there been good science journalists writing about the achievements of scientists in India, perhaps Daggubati would not have relied on information from dodgy sources. India’s premier institutes, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, never figure in the world university rankings. From the information available to the minister today, she won’t be able to figure out whether the absence of IITs in such rankings says something about the poor quality of research or the lack of communication of that research.

There is also another side to this story. In my time at Oxford, whenever there was a paper published in an Indian or Chinese journal, I was explicitly advised not to give it too much value. The suggestion was that research in these journals was not reliable, which in other words means that the researchers were making up data.

This kind of opinion may have been formed by experience. But mostly this opinion was the result of western media reporting negative science stories emerging from China and India, which make academics wary of trusting such research. This, I believe, must lead to missing out on genuinely good research being produced in these countries.

The solution, of course, is one that will require change from the big editorial houses. In my conversations with Indian journalists, I’ve been told many times that there is thirst for good science content but no publication is ready to provide it.

A different solution that a friend and I are pursuing is to collate good science stories from around the web that have their focus on the other side of the world. While this doesn’t solve the need for more science reporting, at least it provides a central place to find good content related to India. Some of it exists, but sadly it tends not to be at one place but spread across different publications. (You can sign up for our newsletter here.)

Those gentlemen in the 19th century suffered personal loss because key information didn’t reach the right audience. Today’s tragedy is the same but the reason is different—key information is not reaching the right audience because either there is too much information and very poor filters or there aren’t enough people to collect and present the information that is so desperately needed.

Lead image: teresaling. Thanks to Deeksha Sharma and Vasudevan Mukunth for reading drafts of this post.

My year with the real wonks: how academia enriches journalism

I stepped out of a chemistry lab to receive a shiny doctorate a little more than two years ago. Then, against the wisdom of many, I decided to become a journalist. That decision was made not because I despised academia, but because it seemed to me that journalism was where my strengths would give me the best chance to succeed.

In doing so, I was leaving behind a world that I had tremendous respect for. Dedicating one’s life to pursuing hard questions in a narrow field of knowledge enriches the world in countless ways. That enrichment is the result of two things: production of new knowledge and new knowledge-bearers (ie students). What you read in popular press about universities is mostly what new research has found about the world. A less talked about, and perhaps greater, contribution that universities make is in educating new students.

Teaching the same course year after year sounds boring to me, but I’ve been assured by many that it is one of the reasons they enjoy being academics. This yearly practice of coming up with new and better ways of explaining fundamental concepts combined with the struggles on the edge of knowledge in a particular field gives these academics the power of conveying the meaning of complex concepts in simple and powerful ways.

A new experiment

If I were asked to give one reason for choosing science journalism, it would be that I get to learn new things about the world all the time. Hardly a days goes by when there isn’t something awesome in science news to read and write about. That is why when I was offered, a year ago today, to be the launch editor for the science and technology section of The Conversation’s UK edition, I wasn’t going to let the job go.

But there was another reason why the job appealed to me: the idea was to get academics to write for the public. The hope was that, with their expertise and skills at explaining ideas, they would help put news in broader context and convey the “meaning” of events to help improve public dialogue on important topics.

While the scientist in me was dancing with joy, the journalist was sceptical. What academics usually write is meant for fellow academics. Their use of passive tense and jargon can put off even the most interested non-experts. They also work on vastly different timescales. Journal articles can take from months to years to get published. News articles usually take only few hours or days to get to the reader.

Marrying the two professions for a public service project was a great idea, but would it work? Could the third major contribution of universities be educating the public (not just a promise, but a reality)?

Is there demand?

“Professors, we need you!” said Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. The Conversation Media Group, founded in 2011 in Australia, got to work before Kristof made the public demand. By the time it launched in the UK in May 2013, it had shown that the Australian public had an appetite for this experiment.

The success down under was swift for one more reason—The Conversation represented a “third choice”. Until 2011, most newspapers and online news websites were owned by either Fairfax or News Corp, which allowed The Conversation to tap into a readership eagerly looking for alternatives.

The UK was different. It had (and still has) some of the most respected publications in the world. There was plenty of choice for an average reader across the political divide. Yet, it seemed that The Conversation stood a chance. Many of the best publications were under financial constraints, cutting staff, especially specialist reporters in science, environment and health. There was scope for explaining news better, and bringing new stories that journalists missed or didn’t have the time to cover.

Readership figures show that the experiment has been successful so far. For the last few months, which is less than a year since launch, the UK edition alone has been reaching more than 2 million readers, and that number is growing quickly. All this with a small team (seven editors at launch, then 14 since February) and no marketing budget.

As a Creative Commons publisher, The Conversation’s authors and their articles have featured in some of the top publications worldwide, which have different aims and leanings—The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times, The Independent, The Hindu, Daily Mail, New Statesman, The Week, The Atlantic, Quartz, Business Insider, Scientific American, Popular Science, Discover Magazine, Ars Technica and Slate, among others.

Much of my scepticism about this job was reasonable. But, right from the start, I was pleasantly surprised at the both the quality and the speed of writing. When given a brief and a deadline, academics usually delivered. Sure first-time authors needed (and still need) lots of help, but most of them were also prepared to learn and improve in this form of communication. What surprised me the most was their enthusiasm. Whoever thinks academics don’t like to engage with the public should spend just one day in our office.

For the first few months, about four in five stories were those where I had to approach an academic with an idea and commission them to write an article. But as The Conversation’s name started spreading, I started getting in more pitches. This was what I was waiting for. Academics who understand what The Conversation does, who get what the public reads, and who were willing to spend the time to write such articles. These academics were bringing through new stories or new angles to old stories, all of which journalists had missed. Here, I realised, were the true wonks.

What is true wonkery?

Recently Felix Salmon of Reuters asked, “Is there a wonk bubble?” In answering that question, he mainly referred to the launch of two websites Vox.com, which wants to “explain the news”, and FiveThirtyEight.com, which wants to use data to tell news stories. I agree with Salmon that both these experiments are great for journalism, but I don’t think that they represent “wonkery” in the true sense.

The new publications are being built on the back of the wonkery of its Editors-in-Chief: Ezra Klein (politics and economics wonk) and Nate Silver (data wonk). The rest of the editorial staff, while quite capable and of high calibre, can’t all be classed in the same category as wonks, definitely not in Salmon’s narrow definition of journalists who know their subject really well and built their reputation through blogging (mostly about policy and politics).

Wonk’s definition as “a person who is obsessively interested in a specified subject” is actually much more accurate for academics (or even PhD students). That is why I class them as the true wonks. Being able to tap into this wonkery, or expertise (as most people would call it), can bring through stories that journalists would just not find on their own.

Economists such as Tyler Cowen, Paul KrugmanSimon Wren-Lewis and David Blanchflower command large audiences already. Scientists have had a long tradition of popularising science, be it Carl Sagan or Brian Cox. Now, beyond promoting the good work of already engaged academics, what The Conversation provides is a platform for new and diverse voices with fresh ideas, which would have otherwise remained in the ivory towers. More than 11,000 academics from over 700 institutions have already contributed to this new conversation.

To give you a flavour of what I mean, I have selected some of my favourite science stories on The Conversation from the past year. They have been split into four categories: the first is explanatory (The Contextual) and the other three are stories that journalists missed or couldn’t dig up  (The Newsworthy, The Amazing and The Strange). I trust you can judge for yourself whether the experiment is worth it.

The Contextual

The Newsworthy

The Amazing

The Strange

Image credit: Lucas Warren

Science in the news: why does it really matter

Most of what is written in a newspaper on a daily basis makes no difference to the life of the common man the people on the streets. Indeed some have even argued that news is actually bad for you

That, though, doesn’t stop people from engaging with news. And, despite the struggles of the news industry, more people read news today than they did when the internet did not exist. This should not be surprising, because the price to read even quality writing has plummeted.

But the lack of a good business model, not surprisingly, has caused a lot of pain to journalists. A new debate has broken out among some veteran science journalists about the work that science journalists ought be doing but don’t. The main criticism is that science in the news is nothing but “pretty entertainments about mummies, exploding stars and the sex life of ducks”.

This, Dan Vergano of USA today, finds to be a problem. He feels that science journalists should instead focus on aspects of the news that should matter to people, such as “whether Iran really will have the bomb, whether Quantitative Easing will spark inflation or whether Peak Oil is a real concern”. Dan thinks in these dark times science journalists have formed a ghetto and that is hurting readers, who deserve better.

I’m sympathetic to some of the points raised. But, even though I’m new to the business of news, I can see some clear problems in Dan’s arguments. (Many of those have been pointed out in these comments).

For example, Dan should be addressing editors, rather than reporters. After all editors are the gatekeepers of news. But because he doesn’t make that clear, a lot of reporters have felt compelled to answer Dan. And rightly so.

There is also a problem with treating the news audience as Dan does. The nebulous idea of a reader who likes politics, sports, science, health and everything else on the news menu is just wrong. When the only way to find out who read your work was through expensive surveys conducted once every year, it made sense to assume such a reader to be your audience. Today, though, that is not true. (Perhaps not accepting that fact is the bane of a good business model to fund journalism).

Third, and this is the reason I was compelled to write this post, is that few journalists outside Dan’s “ghetto” understand the importance of science in the news. That though doesn’t stop readers from devouring science news. The fact is that science news, at least that written well, evokes a sense of wonder among readers. And few in the business of news really understand the value of that.

Oh wow, a duck’s penis is like a corkscrew!

Our sense of wonder, as Jesse Prinz aruges in a beautiful essay, may not have evolved out of any purpose but has been the source of the impetus behind humanity’s greatest achievements. Readers of science news may not always be able to put it such eloquent words as Prinz has done, but deep inside they connect with that feeling.

Three things usually appeal to our sense of wonder: art, science and religion. Religion is newsworthy, but not for its aspects that cause wonder. And perhaps art journalists (if they even exist today) have more to complain than science journalists when it comes to being featured in the news.

This leaves science news (and thus science journalists) to take on the responsibility of satisfying our readers’ wonder-tastebuds. And, you know what, science journalists are doing a splendid job at that.

This is one reason that The Economist’s readers time and again vote for the science and technology pages as their favourite in the weekly newspaper. Apart from that, I don’t have numbers to back me here but I’m willing to bet that, in those expensive annual surveys (some of which still happen) if the right questions are asked, readers will say that they love reading about science because it is wonderful.

As the world has got richer, and that it has despite the recession, and technologies like the internet has left a little more time at hand, it shouldn’t be surprising that more of us are feeding our innate curiosities. I have a feeling that despite the many problems that the world faces today, we might be living in a golden age. A different kind of enlightenment, if you will, where, not just the rich few understand and investigate the workings of the world, but the masses do so too.

Science and the news that it creates, even in its current shape, I contend is fuelling that age.

Developing world science journalists lose out

The organising committee of the upcoming global gathering of science journalists has made sudden changes to the programme last month, cutting several sessions that focused on developing country issues and leaving journalists disappointed. In recent years the World Conference of Science Journalists has attracted up to half its attendees from the developing world. That seems unlikely now.

Developing-world sessions purged from WCSJ2013 programme,  SciDev.Net, 2 April 2013.

 

How to stop fooling yourself

When I first wrote about self-deception, a little more than a year ago, I found the experience traumatising.

It can be very troubling to realise that inside my own head I maybe tucking away truths that I am already aware of!

Now Eli Dourado has an essay in The Umlaut that discusses a paper by Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson that grapples with the issue of self-deception.  Here’s the relevant bit:

Self-favoring priors, they note, can help to serve other functions besides arriving at the truth. People who “irrationally” believe in themselves are often more successful than those who do not. Because pursuit of the truth is often irrelevant in evolutionary competition, humans have an evolved tendency to hold self-favoring priors and self-deceive about the existence of these priors in ourselves, even though we frequently observe them in others.

Self-deception is in some ways a more serious problem than mere lack of intelligence. It is embarrassing to be caught in a logical contradiction, as a stupid person might be, because it is often impossible to deny. But when accused of disagreeing due to a self-favoring prior, such as having an inflated opinion of one’s own judgment, people can and do simply deny the accusation.

So how can we cope with self-deception?

Cowen and Hanson argue that we should be on the lookout for people who are “meta-rational,” honest truth-seekers who choose opinions as if they understand the problem of disagreement and self-deception. According to the theory of disagreement, meta-rational people will not have disagreements among themselves caused by faith in their own superior knowledge or reasoning ability. The fact that disagreement remains widespread suggests that most people are not meta-rational, or—what seems less likely—that meta-rational people cannot distinguish one another.

We can try to identify meta-rational people through their cognitive and conversational styles. Someone who is really seeking the truth should be eager to collect new information through listening rather than speaking, construe opposing perspectives in their most favorable light, and offer information of which the other parties are not aware, instead of simply repeating arguments the other side has already heard.

What sells in the name of journalism today is written to appease one side or the other. Opinions are important, but what is more important is facts that help you arrive at it and the process you use to form them. A good journalist should be a meta-rational person. He should also be able to find other meta-rational people, so that the world is made aware of facts and arguments that help take things a step forward.

The problem, of course, is that meta-rational people care less about success but more about seeking the truth/understanding the world. Their voices are present but harder to find. They get far less attention than they deserve.

You can stop reading now, if you like. For, because we are on the subject of good journalism and meta-rational people, I’d like to discuss an example of exactly the opposite. Aleks Eror writes in VICE that the Chinese are engineering genius babies. This is a great story, if it were true. Sadly, he bases this claim on the word of Geoffrey Miller, an American academic, who wrote a heavily biased article about it in January. What’s worse is that it Miller’s argument had been criticised and debunked (sort-of) immediately after. But Eror chose to ignore that and rehash the fear-mongering story.

The central point of the argument is that the Chinese have an institute where they are doing genome sequencing of the world’s smartest people to find the genes that makes us smart. This is not a new story. Eugenics in some shape or form has existed for a long time. The problem with Eror’s piece is that he doesn’t run by an expert the claims made by Miller.

A good science journalist should always do that because the complex nature of the subjects we usually deal with. Experts may not be the perfect meta-rational candidate that we’d like, but they are close enough. They bring an external perspective, and I’ve found that invaluable in my own work.

Why I chose journalism over science

Warning: You are about to become victims of my introspection 

The motivation for writing this is the conversation that was spurred by a post on why doing a PhD to become a science writer is a bad idea. While those conversations helped me crystallise my thoughts for this post, it was not where they first began.

Earlier this year I submitted my PhD thesis. While graduate students go through common experiences (that Jorge Cham so beautifully portrays in PhD Comics), every doctorate is unique because everyone has different reasons to pursue it.

I applied to graduate school because it seemed like a very attractive option. First reason was the prospect of studying in a university that had people from all disciplines and not just chemical engineering, as happens to be the case in the Institute of Chemical Technology where I studied before.

Second was the desire to master a subject. My undergraduate degree was a menagerie of subjects across engineering, chemistry and biology (I specialised in pharmaceutical sciences and technology). While that was great, I just did not have enough time to be able to fully appreciate how amazing each of these subjects were.

The first two reasons might seem to contradict each other, but they don’t. It is rare to be able to appreciate the messiness of science without a broad understanding of arts and humanities. While many from my undergraduate days might feel that they got that broad understanding in the four years they spent in Mumbai, I felt that my education was incomplete.

That is why the third reason sealed the case. I had an offer letter from Oxford. Just in a short few hours that I spent in Oxford in 2007, I had fallen in love with the city of the dreaming spires and the idea of the knowledge powerhouse that lay hidden behind those stony walls. It was a place that would allow me to widen my horizons and still focus on mastering one subject.

At the end of four years of having made that decision, even though in the process I have decided to not go down the academic path, I feel that I have somewhat succeeded in achieving my goals. But I would not have said that a year ago.

When I started the PhD, apart from “completing” my education, I knew that I wanted to be an academic. The profession lured me because I felt that it will give me the freedom to pursue all my intellectual interests; that it will allow me to mingle with the best minds of the world; that academics are not bothered by the administrative hurdles of other jobs…

Another bubble?

The bubble broke just after a year of being in the lab. While I still have immense respect for what scientists do (I wouldn’t write about science otherwise), from up close I could see that the profession faces the same challenges that many other professions do. What sealed my decision to not go down that path, though, was the question: do I love my subject enough to be able to dedicate my whole life to it? I wasn’t so sure.

I am a restless person with many interests. I knew few young academics who were able to pursue more than just one interest (ie their own subject) with their full heart in it. I’ve also heard many horror stories where people have spent 15-20 years waiting to secure that dream job of having their own lab, but never got there.

But as it happens, on leaving academia, I chose journalism—a profession that commands a lot less respect (compared to scientists who command the most), has fewer permanent positions, offers smaller compensations, is known to have poorer career progression and, finally, most importantly, I do not have “proper training” for.

Will I regret this?

It is not such a mad decision, after all. I chose to be a journalist because I loved the job, but I am also a pragmatist. Each of the criticisms of a journalistic career over a scientific one can be dealt with.

Although people have less trust in journalists, it is a statistical average. An honest journalist is often well-respected, and great journalism also happens to command a lot of influence over its audience.

It has far fewer permanent positions, but it is also a career that has a lot of freelancers. Although freelancing early in the career is hard, there are ways to reach there which have been tried and tested.

It offers a smaller compensation, but I am happy to balance that with job satisfaction.

Although there are many trained journalists out there, many of the top journalists I have spoken to have told me that journalism is more a craft than a science. A lot of the people who do a master’s in journalism have the same experience. So as long as you have your fundamentals in place, you can become an excellent journalist through practice and apprenticeship.

And, finally, if you think about it, scientists and journalists are in someways doing the same thing. Both aim to decipher how things work and disseminate their findings to the world, just at vastly different timescales. Where as things in the sciences are considered objective, that in reality is a subjective notion.

But the decision wasn’t that straightforward. Those defecting research, especially having pursued a PhD or post-doc, are viewed as failures. As Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist who is considering leaving academia, recently wrote: scientists may consider such defectors “as turning away from the “right” path to something that is more lightweight, more flimsy, less worthy of their talent and effort.”

It is sad that some scientists are that small-minded to consider their work to be superior to that of many others. And, yes, that happens even in a place like Oxford which is full of brilliant people on either side of the divide.

PS: Yes, I haven’t failed to see the irony in that. At the end of my PhD one of my aims was to “complete” my education…