In remote corners of the world, scientists are trying to unravel the workings of the universe. Anil Ananthswamy, whose book The Edge of Reason celebrates their discoveries, talks about how it all happened.
Anil Ananthaswamy is the author of The Edge of Reason, a work of narrative non-fiction. The book tells the story of scientists whose research into the workings of the universe takes them to remote places. And, it celebrates those very destinations which make certain scientific discoveries possible. The London-based writer and engineer from IIT-Madras talks about how the book came into being.
Your book, part-physics and part-travelogue, takes readers to extreme destinations like Siberia and Antarctica. Why did you go to all those remote places?
The big questions faced by scientists - physicists and cosmologists in particular - cannot be answered by doing simple experiments in labs anymore. They have to build telescopes and detectors in pristine regions that are devoid of light pollution and electromagnetic noise, or atop mountains to get above most of Earth's murky atmosphere, which is bad for telescopes. This is so that they can look further back in time and deeper into the cosmos. As it happens, such places are all in remote locations. I wanted to go see exactly what all these physicists are doing. Astronomers are building an observatory in the Himalayas, on this hill called Mount Saraswati.
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.
How did you come up with the idea for this book?
I had been working on a novel that involved physics. During that time, I kept thinking about going to mountaintops to see telescopes, and when I realised I was not going to complete the novel, I switched my attention to the travelogue I had in mind. It all came together when I became physics news editor for New Scientist. I became confident of tackling a book about journeys to remote places to see telescopes.
It took me a little more than four years to do the travelling, the research and the writing for this. The travel needed a lot of careful planning. For instance, you can only go to Antarctica in the austral summer. But I had to go to Siberia in the winter, because that's when physicists do their work on the Lake Baikal Neutrino telescope. Some places, like the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, I visited many times, as it's a very complex experiment and I couldn't make sense of it in just one trip.
Did you eat well in the lonely outposts?
Given that I'm a vegetarian, the food posed some problems, but less so than one would think. My Russian hosts in Siberia very kindly whipped up vegetarian meals in a land of meat and potatoes. I was very surprised that the US bases in Antarctica - at McMurdo Station and at the South Pole -catered magnificently to vegetarians.
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.