Please tell us about yourself. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?
Anil Ananthaswamy treaded cautiously across the lake ice, the worn soles of his leather shoes providing little traction as he tried to avoid the cracks in the meter-thick ice. Below the ice lay the frigid depths of Lake Baikal, a 400-mile-long body of water in southeastern Siberia.
This forbidding landscape where winter temperatures regularly plunged below zero was not a place where the India-born, former software engineer might have envisioned himself when he gave up a lucrative tech career to study science communication at UC Santa Cruz in 1999, obtaining his certificate in 2000.
But it was where a story about the hunt for subatomic particles called neutrinos had led him, and so Ananthaswamy followed—onto the dangerous terrain.
It is that willingness to explore and ask questions, even when it is uncomfortable, that has marked Ananthaswamy as a respected science journalist who is a regular contributor to New Scientist magazine and also resulted in praise for his most recent book, The Man Who Wasn’t There, which explores how our brain and body create our sense of self. Ananthaswamy was interviewed about the book on NPR’s Fresh Air in July.
“It’s never boring,” says Ananthaswamy, 52, of his life as a science writer, “or, more positively, it is always exciting.”
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.
Ananthaswamy’s stories have taken him deep into mines and to mountaintops in Chile. They have led him to observe long-duration balloon launches from the Ross Ice Shelf off Antarctica, and he has reported on drillers using boiling water to drill 2.5 kilometers into the ice at the South Pole to build the Ice Cube neutrino telescope.
It was Ananthaswamy’s “need to tell stories” that brought him to writing, he says, but it was the lessons he learned about the rigors of reporting and journalism in UC Santa Cruz’s year-long Science Communication Program that gave him a career.
“Santa Cruz feels like a campus that takes chances,” Ananthaswamy says. “For me, it was taking a big chance to give up a career in software and move into something like writing, and so it seemed like the perfect campus to make my transition.”
It’s a decision, he says, he’s never regretted.
What is your educational background?
I grew up in Bhilai, a town in Chhattisgarh (formerly part of Madhya Pradesh). From there, I went to IIT-Madras to do a B.Tech in Electronics, which led to M.S. from the University of Washington, Seattle. I worked as a software engineer in Bangalore and in the Silicon Valley in California for more than a decade before becoming a journalist.
Your journey to becoming a writer.
I was always interested in writing stories. As a kid, I remember writing a couple of short stories that were published in a magazine called Children’s World. When I was well into my software career, the desire to write started to emerge again. I attended classes on fiction writing in Berkeley, California, and tried writing short stories in the mid-to-late 1990s.
Then I discovered a science writing programme at the University of California Santa Cruz, that combined writing with science, both of which I love. After graduating from that programme, I did an internship with New Scientist magazine in London in 2000. Since then, I have been writing and editing for the magazine in various capacities – from being a freelancer to staff writer to deputy news editor.
Writing, especially if you are a freelancer, is hard work; good assignments are hard to come by. And writing clear and entertaining stories is a skill that you can only develop after years of labour.
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.
What, to you, is the best thing about being a writer?
It makes you pay attention. If you are curious about the world, whether the external or the internal, writing allows you to examine your reactions and express them in a precise manner. Writing also lets you explore precision and beauty, in the form of words, sentences and paragraphs.
Being a writer is not lucrative. It can make you feel neurotic at times, because you are never too far away from being jobless. It’s an inherently insecure profession. So, you can’t do it unless you are motivated by the act of writing itself, by the joy it brings, and the light it sheds on life.