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Cosmic quest

Print edition : Jul 16, 2010 T+T-
ANIL ANANTHASWAMY. HE worked as a software engineer before becoming a journalist and writer.-ADAM GOFF

ANIL ANANTHASWAMY. HE worked as a software engineer before becoming a journalist and writer.-ADAM GOFF

ANIL ANANTHASWAMY is the author of the recently released book The Edge of Reason. It is a work of narrative non-fiction and tells the story of scientists whose research into the workings of the universe takes them to remote places. The destinations include Lake Baikal in Siberia, the Atacama desert in the Chilean Andes, Mauna Kea in Hawaii, the underground lair of the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, the barren Karoo in South Africa, the frozen frontier of Antarctica and the Hanle valley in the Indian Himalayas. In each of these places, scientists have set up elaborate experiments to understand the universe.

All good books are transporting, as the cliche goes. So where will The Edge of Reason take us?

Towards an understanding of one of the greatest journeys that human beings have undertaken: the quest to decipher the universe itself. How did the universe begin? How might it end? And all the questions in between. The Edge of Reason tells the story of the men and women who have dedicated their lives to answering such questions from a scientific perspective.

Some of these destinations the Atacama desert or the frozen Antarctic sound downright forbidding. Why did you go to these remote locations?

The big questions faced by scientists physicists and cosmologists in particular cannot be answered by building 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 the 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, none more so than the Antarctic. I wanted to go see exactly what these physicists were doing.

One of the chapters is set in the Himalayas. What are scientists trying to find out there?

Indian astronomers are building a new observatory in the Himalayas, on a hill called Mount Saraswathi on the Tibetan plateau. Sites for astronomy and cosmology are evaluated on the basis of the quality of something called seeing the nature of the atmosphere and the skies in the region that help telescopes see clearly into the cosmos. In that regard, the site in the Himalayas is of very high quality. But the telescope itself is rather small compared with the giant telescopes that are operating elsewhere in the world. So, it's still an observatory in the making.

Speaking of Saraswathi, the goddess of learning, please tell us more about your education.

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 an MS 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 and a writer.

Tell us about your journey to becoming an author.

I was always interested in writing stories. As a kid, I remember writing a couple of short stories, which were published in a magazine called Children's World. By the time I was well into my software career, the desire to write started to emerge again. So, I began by attending 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, which combined writing with science, both of which I love.

I graduated from that programme and did an internship with New Scientist 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. I'm now back to being a consultant for New Scientist. Because of my association with the magazine, I have always found plenty of satisfying assignments, but I have been lucky in that regard. 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 get the idea of writing this book?

I had been working on a novel that involved physics, but unfortunately I was never able to get it done. During that time, I kept thinking about going to mountaintops to see telescopes, and when I realised I was not going to write 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. The travelling needed a lot of careful and advance 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 the physicists are doing 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. In most places, I stayed for anything from a few days to a couple of weeks. As it happened, the longest stay was in Antarctica I was there for a whole month.

Why did you go to Siberia in the winter?

The reason I went to Siberia was to see a telescope that's being used to detect subatomic particles called neutrinos. These are extremely elusive particles and rarely interact with matter. But when they do interact, say with water or ice, they emit a blue light, and a neutrino telescope is looking for this blue light. One such telescope is deep inside Lake Baikal in Siberia, watching for the ephemeral flashes of light when a neutrino from outer space hits a molecule of water.

Neutrinos, because they rarely interact with matter, can come to us from deep space untouched, carrying information about the cosmos in a way no other particle can. Russian scientists are using the clear waters of Lake Baikal as a detector for neutrinos.

The Russians working on the Lake Baikal Neutrino Telescope don't have enough funds to work on their underwater telescope during summer or spring. Because then they'll require ships and submersibles to do their work, which they cannot afford. So they wait until winter for the lake to freeze over. They then use the ice as a platform for their cranes and winches and other equipment a very resourceful way of working, but in hazardous conditions. That's why I had to go in winter, because that's when the scientists are there working.

Did you eat well in those 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 were very kind to whip up vegetarian meals in a land of meat and potatoes. I was very surprised that the U.S. bases in Antarctica at McMurdo Station and at the South Pole catered magnificently to vegetarians.

Places, not people, appear to be the heroes of your book. What was it like coming back to the crowded city each time?

Yes, places are definitely the heroes in the book. But so are the people who work in these extremely remote and dangerous places. I was very moved by each of these places, their beauty, their immensity and natural silence. I often felt sad leaving them, most so when I left the South Pole, for I knew that I would never be able to come back. Coming back to cities and crowds was, paradoxically, both unpleasant and somewhat of a relief.

What, according to you, is the best thing about being a writer?

The best thing about being a writer is that 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.

It is, of course, not a lucrative profession. 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.

Your book was called The Edge of Physics abroad. In India, it is called The Edge of Reason. Why?

My publisher in India [Penguin] felt that the word physics in the title would not work in the Indian market, as bookstores wouldn't know how to categorise and stock the book. Hence the change. The Edge of Reason was my working title anyway, so I'm happy to see it in at least one edition.

What are you currently working on?

Hopefully [I shall] get back to my stalled novel.