Off the Beaten Track: An Interview with Anil Ananthaswamy


Anil Ananthaswamy (BT/EE/1985) is an acclaimed science writer. He is a consultant for New Scientist, a leading science magazine published in the UK, where he has worked in various capacities since 2000.

His first book, The Edge of Physics (published in India as The Edge of Reason) was chosen as the Book of the Year 2010 by Physics World, a magazine published by the Institute of Physics, UK. He was also awarded their inaugural Physics Journalism Prize in February 2013, for his feature on the Square Kilometre Array. His writings have also appeared in various other outlets.

After his B.Tech, Anil did an MSEE from the University of Washington and worked as a software engineer in Silicon Valley, before he realized his true calling was writing about science. He trained as a science journalist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he is now a guest lecturer.

He was conferred IIT Madras’ Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2014.

You went to the U.S. for graduate study after your B.Tech here, and then took up a software job in Silicon Valley – a well-trodden path for IITians. At the time, did you feel that was the natural thing to do? Did you have any inkling of a writing career back then?

Going for graduate study to the US seemed right at the time, but I must confess it was also not terribly well thought out — everyone was doing it, and I did too. After my MSEE from the University of Washington, Seattle, I returned to India, and started working in Bangalore. Within a year of my return, I switched to a small software company. But those were the early days of the software industry in India, and most companies were more into body-shopping than local software development. I was sent back to the US. I figured that if I was going to be in the US, I should find a job I liked, so I moved to Berkeley, CA, to work on distributed network management systems.

No, I didn’t have any inkling of a writing career at the time. It’s only after a few years of being in Berkeley that I started playing around with writing fiction, and eventually discovered science journalism.

You mention in one of your talks how reading the book, The Universe and Dr. Einstein, changed your life. But quitting a job in Silicon Valley for an uncertain career in writing would not have been easy. Did you have to convince your family?

It wasn’t easy, but it felt like the right thing to do. My heart wasn’t in software, and the desire to write was very strong. I think the transition was easier because I was in the US — where the culture encourages, even embraces change, regardless of your age. No, I didn’t have to convince my family. It was a personal decision.

Tell us about your student experience at IIT-M.

I suppose it was very typical. It was a good mix of academics, sports and culture. The campus was idyllic. Looking back, I value the education I received at IIT-M. I do wish though that I had paid more attention to some particularly brilliant teachers, and learned more from them. Professor Balakrishnan, who taught us classical mechanics, comes to mind. Still, whatever I learned from him and others informs the science journalism I do today.

Do you feel students at IITs and other technical institutions in India are not adequately exposed to the fascination, the inspirational quality, and the wonder of science? Today, many of them prefer jobs in the financial/consulting sector. What was it like during your time here?

If anything, the lure of IT/finance/consulting is more now than when I graduated. And this does impact the quality of students going into pure science. But the problem of good science education begins before students enter institutes like the IITs or other colleges. Barring a few exceptions, our schools don’t cultivate the kind of enquiring minds that can succeed at fundamental science. The IISERs may help redress the situation somewhat, but unless primary and secondary schools are stocked with teachers who can inculcate a wonder for science and inspire kids to careers in science, our institutes of higher learning will keep fighting a losing battle.

We also need to teach kids to build, break and experiment. There is a larger cultural handicap among Indians, especially the educated, of an unwillingness to work with their hands. When I visited the South Pole to study the science being done there, it was heartening to see professors from US and Europe toiling in the incredibly harsh Antarctic environment. Or in Siberia, where I saw Russian and German astrophysicists braving the biting cold of Siberian winters to work on their neutrino telescope.

While there are certain Indian experimental scientists who can match the best anywhere (the radio astronomy community and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope near Pune, for example), on average an ability to work in the trenches is missing. And this is a skill that needs to be nurtured in the young.

Research in India is better funded now than ever before and a lot of good research is being done. But do you think scientists in India should have more direct engagement with the public and the media and be more willing to talk about their research? How would you compare them with scientists abroad in this respect?

Yes, I think scientists in India — again, with notable exceptions — do not engage enough with the public and the media. There are many reasons for this. Often, scientists are skeptical of the media, for good reason. Journalists can be lazy with their reporting and writing, which is a huge problem when communicating science. But this cuts both ways. Scientists too have to make the time to explain their science in lay language. But many are unable or unwilling to do so.

Not that these problems don’t exist abroad. But there is far greater appreciation among Western scientists that they are beholden to the society, and many view science as a public service.

I can, as a science journalist, email Western scientists (and Indian scientists in the West) asking to speak with them for some story I’m writing, and almost without fail, they will reply. And many will take the time to explain the science over an hour or two of telephone conversation, even when they may not get any mention in my story. This happens on a weekly basis. I often meet many scientists in person. Such engagement with reporters is essential for good science journalism.Sadly, this is lacking in India; at times even the basic courtesy of a reply saying ‘Sorry, I’m busy’ is missing.

Given all this, it’s hard to be a good science journalist in India. Science journalism requires committed and cooperative scientists who consider it part of their job, even duty, to work with journalists. And the media’s focus on entertainment and business doesn’t help matters.

The media here in India have been accused of aiding an anti-science culture. And only a few newspapers like The Hindu have dedicated science coverage. Do you think a “scientific temper” is missing in Indian media?

Unfortunately, yes. However, you can see this as a reflection of lack of scientific temper in the broader culture. This permeates not just the media, but ironically, even the scientific establishment. As R Ramachandran notes in the article you link to above, “What is more curious is that officials of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which successfully sent a spacecraft to the moon and intends to send one to Mars next month, should unfailingly offer prayers at the Tirupati temple before every launch—these days it is no less than the Chairman himself—and carefully avoid inauspicious times, such as rahukaalam, to choose rocket launch windows. Such behaviour on the part of even the elite scientific community only helps entrench blind beliefs and superstitions.”

On the other hand, despite the prominent coverage science stories get in U.S. media, we still have various forms of denialism – climate change deniers, creationists, etc. Your thoughts on this.

This is a serious problem in the US. It shows that the media can be co-opted and manipulated by vested interests. When I teach science journalism, I use climate change denial and the debate over evolution versus creationism as examples of issues where the traditional notion of objectivity in journalism—giving equal column inches to two sides of a debate—poses problems. And it requires science journalists who have enough expertise to separate the wheat from the chaff. It requires science journalists who have the same sense of ethics and integrity one demands of scientists.

Your piece, “Do no Harm”, for the crowdfunded online publisher MATTER, won the Association of British Science Writers’ Award for investigative journalism. Are you hopeful that innovative projects like MATTER point the way forward for journalism to survive, and perhaps even thrive, in this digital era?

I think MATTER is a great example of thoughtful, long-form science journalism. It shows that people are hungry for in-depth, well-researched stories, regardless of the medium. The digital era is threatening such journalism, but there are beacons of hope. Ultimately, the media, electronic or otherwise, will reflect and pander to the cultural values of the readership. We as readers have to value and be willing to pay for serious content; if not, we’ll get drivel.

Your first book, The Edge of Physics, was very well received. Are you working on a new book?

Yes, I am writing a book on the neuroscience of the sense of self, tentatively-titled Maladies of the Self. It’ll be published by Dutton (Penguin US).

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