Alok Jha is a physics graduate of Imperial College London who has gone on to become a science journalist. Alok is one of the lead science correspondents for the Guardian and hosts their weekly science podcast. He also is a regular presenter on the BBC show ‘Dara Ó Briain’s Science Club’ and has written two popular science books.
As a citizen I’m really glad that scientists are out there writing, blogging, meeting and kind of engaging with everyone.
On getting interested in science
I think I got interested in science…I think I always was interested in science, I just didn’t know what was science until perhaps I started studying. I mean, I did physics at university because I figured it might be the hardest thing to do and I always figured that you might as well try and learn as much as possible and do the hardest possible thing so, you know, at school I was doing further maths and things, not because I was particularly clever but I thought ‘Well, if you’re gonna have an education you might as well try the hardest thing’. But if I was to think back to when I really got into what I would call…understood as science, I used to go to the library a lot and read lots of books and in the junior school section of the library where I grew up near Manchester, there was a book I just found one day called The Edge of Infinity; it was written by Paul Davies the physicist. I didn’t know who he was or anything but I read it and it was trying to describe what infinity was, and then how you measure it and what it means for physics and stuff and it just blew my mind because I thought…I didn’t know that you needed to define what infinity was, I mean, I knew infinity was just this 8 on its side but beyond that…what it meant for the Universe and the Big Bang and these things and I just thought this is absolutely fascinating – it helped that it was just beautifully written as well – and I just started to read more and more and more.
And if I look back on it now I think, well, I was always sort of taking things apart and all those sort of cliché traditional things; we lived in a house once where there was an old gramophone or something in the back garden somehow, don’t ask me how it got there but I remember spending a week taking that thing apart, then trying to put it back together and hoping no one would notice that I couldn’t put it back together, but I wanted to know what was inside it. So I didn’t call it science and I think that wasn’t until I got to school and went to science lessons. But science in school wasn’t the most interesting thing for me, I found English most interesting, actually, and I loved Shakespeare and I loved writing poems and stories and that kind of thing and that’s what I thought I was gonna do until I got to about just before GCSEs and thought, actually, I love mathematics more than that: I love maths, I love solutions to equations and all this sort of stuff and that’s why I did science A levels and decided to go into physics. I remember the reason physics specifically interested me at university was because I went to a lecture at Manchester University – we were taken as a school trip to a lecture at Manchester University – and there was a particle physicist whose name I sadly can’t remember but if I ever met him again I’d say thanks, and he gave us a lecture about the Standard Model and, you know, where all the particles are and all the forces and all that sort of stuff and I was just entranced by this thing. And he said at the end: the one thing that’s missing from this is that we don’t have gravity in here. Gravity is transmitted by a particle called a graviton and we don’t know where it is, we can’t…we’ve been trying to detect it but we can’t, and I remember my school teacher, my physics teacher at the time, saying, ‘Yeah, my PhD was about the graviton but all we did was detect lorries driving past the lab’. And I thought, this is what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna find the graviton, this is me, I have a goal! I enrolled, I went to university, did physics and realised within six months that finding the graviton was gonna be really quite hard, and when you go from being in a school where you’re the best at physics to a university…I went to Imperial College, where everyone’s amazing at physics, and really, really good at it as well, you just realise perhaps physics wasn’t really…I couldn’t really make that contribution.
And I realised another thing, which is that I have an attention span that’s this big, so, combined with the fact that writing is what I really like, and that’s why I got to where I am now, and I think that science…the reason that I’m interested in science still in my career, I mean, I’m a writer…I’m a writer and a journalist first, and it happens to be that science has a really amazing bunch of stories within it that I can use as source material. But also it’s about asking questions and I think, for me, it’s an education as well, and I’d like to…it’s a way of getting into every single lab in the world without having to have done a PhD, post doc , become a professor and then ask for a collaboration, and it’s kind of an interesting position to be in: you can just ring up someone and say, ‘Listen, I just read your paper about String Theory, can you just explain it to me over an hour please?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah yeah, sure sure’, which is, you know, any old joe wouldn’t be able to do that. I feel like, hang on, do you know that I’m just nobody? I’m just a nobody, I’m just literally asking you because I’m interested. So that’s what I find interesting about it: I feel like that’s my PhD, that’s my further education in science, and I thought that journalism is a really good way of doing that.
I mean, it’s not the only thing that’s important about journalism: that’s why I’m interested in science, because ultimately it’s about asking questions and that’s what I like to do. Do you ever get that thing where you go into a library or you go into a bookshop and there’s a moment of existential angst where you look around and think, there’s so much information and knowledge in the world and I’m never gonna know it all, and I don’t want to make a contribution in that way. I don’t think I’m clever enough to make a genuinely interesting contribution but I would just like to just know what other people have found out all this time and that’s kind of what’s interesting about it; there’s a moment when you think, shit, I’m just not gonna know everything and it’s so sad, you just…a bit of you dies at that point. But you can try, so basically I’m trying to read everything, that’s my sort of thing.
On deciding on what science to cover
Deciding what’s interesting is something I don’t think you do consciously, so if I have to decide whether something’s interesting or not it probably means I don’t find it that interesting. I find myself drawn to things like…just big questions about the universe or healthcare for example obviously interest me because that interests my readers a lot, so lots about regenerative medicine or stem cells, all that sort of thing, and then it’s the big questions about whether String Theory is real or not or what’s the Theory of Everything or where’s the Higgs Boson, that kind of thing, which is just kind of meaningless in the real context of the world but it’s just like, come on, we could be pushing the boundaries of all meaning here; it’s great. And I find that you don’t need to find things interesting actively, things are just interesting to you, and the good thing is there’s lots of people in the world who find different things interesting, our world is a tapestry of these things and it shouldn’t be one person deciding what’s interesting. And I spend my time finding stories and often it’s the story that’s the most important thing for me, not the science…not always the science, let me say, because sometimes a person’s journey to getting to the science or understanding the science or some trip they went on is as interesting as the result itself and the result itself can sometimes be quite prosaic, actually, it doesn’t matter, but the trip, the sort of human aspect of it is interesting and I find that really fascinating. Scientists spend a lot of time sort of taking the “human” out of their measurements and that’s necessary because we can trick ourselves: intuition is important but, you know, we trick ourselves into being biased about certain things and not realising what those biases are. Science is a brilliant way of making sure the bias is taken out as much as possible – still with flaws in it obviously – but when you’ve got that result, when you’ve got to that truth, if you like, when you have to explain it to people, or talk about it to everyone else, you have to reinsert some of that humanity, otherwise it just doesn’t make sense to anyone else or move people and ultimately I’m looking for things that move people and I think that if something moves me without much effort on its part then I know it will move someone else as well, and that’s all you can do really.
So how do I decide what to write about, what to be interested in? I kind of let things interest me and also I keep an open mind because, like, sometimes the things that you find interesting are quite surprising to you, you know, you just wouldn’t have thought something was interesting. I mean we get…I’m a journalist on the Guardian so I get hundreds of press releases a day about things I find anti-interesting, that’s the way I would say it, which is that none of those things I’m told are interesting by other people are interesting to me. Things that I find interesting are almost things that sell themselves, no one needs to tell me they’re interesting. It’s a bit of a confusing answer, isn’t it?
So I think to myself, does anyone else want to know about this? Actually, here’s a good definition of journalism, actually, journalism is, one old time hack once told me, it’s basically professionalised gossip. What does that mean? It means that you’ve learnt something, you’ve found something out, and you want to tell someone else. That’s what gossip is and that’s essentially what journalism is. If you don’t want to learn something then it’s not interesting anyway, but say you’ve learnt it and you don’t want to tell someone else about it, well that’s just a secret, so that’s not journalism either. So journalism is…you have to have both bits, and that’s what we want to do, we want to find stuff out and sometimes, I have to say, it means things that that person who you’re finding it out from doesn’t want you to tell someone else but then you have to think, well, is that in the public interest, is that in the wider interest, so we do have this other role as well.
There is a difference between what I do, I would say, and what, you know, many of my colleagues in science communication do and I think that science communication is an incredibly important, good thing. As a citizen I’m really glad that scientists are out there writing, blogging, meeting and kind of engaging with everyone, I think it’s absolutely brilliant and more power to them because there’s shitloads of all sorts of crap celebrities out there doing all sorts of things so why not make them celebrities cause they’re actually genuinely interested in something. But my role, I think, is a bit different in that I do find all that stuff wonderful and I want everyone to know about it and I kind of think that a scientific mindset is an important thing to instill in people but I have to be really careful in saying that I’m not on the side of scientists in the larger world of things, I’m on the side of the readers. So, if the readers want to know something then I tell them that and if the scientists think that that’s not important to tell them or that it’s not ready to tell them yet, as long as you do it responsibly, I don’t care what the scientists really think. As long as I get it right and I’m not misrepresenting anyone and I indicate the validity of it, the scientific process, what stage of the scientific process it’s at, was it someone’s idea individually or was it peer reviewed, was it meta analysis or something I think it’s perfectly fine because anything else is basically censorship and I think that science is never harmed by that process.
So I have to be very clear that I don’t seek permission from scientists to write about stuff and I don’t seek to publicise their work, I’m not popularising what they’re doing, that’s an effect of what we’re up to as journalists but our prime role should be what’s in the interest of the reader, what do they want to know; to hell with what all the scientists think they want you to know.
So that’s an interesting sort of tension sometimes because scientists more and more are engaging people like me and that’s fantastic, but there is a little bit of a feeling that they sort of pat you on the head occasionally and say, oh well done, that was great, but if you say anything they don’t like they’re really like, hang on, why on earth did you write about that, that’s just not important – well it might not be important to you but it is to people I care about, which is the readers, essentially.
On interesting new uses of science
I think the most interesting thing about science, and it’ll sound like a bit of a get out answer but I don’t mean it like this, I think the most interesting thing about science is the way it makes you think: that’s what I find the most interesting and important about it. It’s a really interesting, important and successful way of thinking about the world. The results are also interesting and intriguing and get you to amazing truths and I find all that stuff fascinating, but in a way it’s philosophically much more interesting to me that you have to ask questions about the world, not trust what everyone’s telling you, find out what their interests are, investigate yourself ‘til you’re happy with the fact that you’re being told something that is not made up, essentially, and I think that’s very powerful, it’s a very powerful way of looking at the world and it can apply to all parts of life. I mean, scientists use it in one way to discover the truth about nature or find a cure for something or discover how a cell works or whatever else, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t use that to work out for yourself how your life can be better in many other ways. I think, for me, that’s the most interesting use of science and I think that the examples of science that we talk about in media and science communication and things, Higgs Boson or, you know, what stars are made of or how a Formula One car works or something, these are for me really good examples of how far you can get, what things you can achieve, what amazing things you can achieve with this simple way of thinking. And I think that’s for me, what I do. And ultimately that’s what journalists do, you’re doing exactly the same thing, you’re checking sources out, you’re working out what’s true and what isn’t, you’re looking at biases and we use the information in different ways, that’s the…I’m not saying that science and journalism are the same thing at all but our approach to the world is skeptical and that’s the way I like thinking about the world and I wish more people would do it, I wish that more people would be aware of these things and it empowers you, I think, it really empowers you to know that thinking about the world in that way is valuable and it makes you aware of people fleecing you, for example, or if someone’s telling you the truth or not and I think it’s…that’s very powerful.