The easiest way to explain my story is to use the metaphor of a horse with blinders on
Akshat Rathi is a journalist with Quartz, where he covers science, health, and more. He has been published in The Economist, Nature, The Hindu, The Guardian, Ars Technica and Chemistry World, among others.
What’s your story?
The easiest way to explain my story is to use the metaphor of a horse with blinders on. Since leaving home at the age of 17, I’ve spent my life removing those blinders and grabbing on to opportunities that have excited me the most. So while it’s an unusual move to make to go from science to journalism, as Steve Jobs says, it makes complete sense when I connect the dots looking back.
The Indian education system is what put the blinders on me. I was fortunate to get in to one of the best engineering schools in India, but it meant that for four years I was surrounded by only chemical engineers. So when I got an opportunity to leave the bubble to go to Oxford University, I grabbed it with both hands.
Granted that I got in to do a doctorate in organic chemistry (bigger blinders), but it was a place I knew I would have the opportunity to explore the world as I had never done before. And it was everything I imagined it would be and more. Halfway through my PhD I realized the thing that attracted me most was to linger in the world of ideas. Writing was a hobby, and so I used it as a way to enter journalism.
Journalism is one of the most inclusive of professions. So it was a natural place for a nomad like me who was trying to find his place in the world.
You started blogging in 2006, how has your writing changed since then?
A lot. I can see myself in my 2006 writing, but I am surprised how much I’ve improved since (and how much I still have to). I’ll list three key things that have changed.
- I think more clearly about things than I have ever before. So my writing today is clearer than ever (though nowhere near the masters of the skill).
- Many times I am able to spot where I need to improve in my writing. This was very hard as a fledgling blogger in 2006, and it is the best skill in writing I’ve gained since.
- I have learned how I can use aids: from simple things like a good image or chart to more complex things like using the right quote or a smart headline.
Can you explain the architecture of a good science article?
Using a story “architecture” is probably a bad idea, because things can quickly become repetitive and boring. So I would rephrase the question to be about the elements of a good science article. Those are: a grabby lead that answers quickly why I’m reading what I’m reading, explanation of the science so that a smart high-school student gets it, and skepticism about the claims made because scientists are just as fallible as others.
Which stories would you show to a person who has no previous interest in science to encourage an interest in the subject?
There has never been a better time to make the case for why an interested citizen should have some interest in science, because it affects our lives more than it has ever before. Take this recent article for instance, which shows how monumental changes to our society’s fabric can slip by without much notice. If people don’t take interest in science, the future could look very different from their hopes for it.
Which of the stories you have written stick out in your mind the most?
- The next weapon of mass destruction could kill without any explosions (because it’s important to remember that science could be used for both good and evil)
2. A man who tracked five years of sneezes might have a fix for your pollen allergy (because the scientific method, applied correctly, can rescue you)
3. It’s probably a myth that we’re not getting enough sleep (because sometimes science doesn’t have the right answer)
How is working at Quartz different to your previous role at The Conversation?
At The Conversation, my core job was to get scientists to write about things that any reader would be interested in and edit it such that the reader enjoys reading it. After a little bit of training, it was a lot of fun to then be pitched some of the most original ideas that could have only originated because of their deep expertise.
At Quartz, I have a broader remit (covering science and health) but for readers that are a little more defined. One definition of a Quartz reader is that she is a busy person who is interested in big ideas and changes in the global economy. So apart from writing stories that fall between the important and interesting, I also work with other writers to shape how Quartz can cover this important beat.
How has science communication developed in India? How does his compare to the UK?
There are some signs of hope. As online media has exploded, we are seeing people cover more science stories. But there is a long way to go compared to the UK, where every respectable national daily has a dedicated science desk.
If you weren’t writing about science or health, what would be your subject of choice?
Applying philosophy to real-life problems.
You have a day off work — what do you do?
Depends on what my newest obsession is. Right now it’s playing video games. Last year it was learning origami.
If you hadn’t had the pressure of becoming an engineer, what do you think you may have done
I would have loved to study at a liberal arts college. Fortunately, I’ve found myself a job that allows me to do some of that and for much longer.
What excites you about the future?
That journalism has more opportunities today than ever before. There are so many stories to be told and so many ways to tell them. It would be a bonus to play a part of significance in such times, while having as much fun as I have in my job.