During the southern hemisphere summer of December 2007, Anil Ananthaswamy flew to Christchurch, New Zealand, where he boarded a C-17 U.S. Air Force cargo plane bound for Antarctica. It was one of the last stops in a series of visits to telescopes in extreme locations for his first book, “The Edge of Physics.” When he reached the massive, frozen continent, he found that words failed him. “There’s no way to be prepared,” he says. Devoid of any familiar features like trees or grass or sand, “Antarctica was nothing that I could relate to.”
Ananthaswamy’s reporting is characterized by stories that confront the limits of human comprehension and illustrate our quest to examine our place in the world. Whether he’s standing on a frozen lake in Siberia or pondering the implications of the famous double-slit experiment, Ananthaswamy takes concepts to the edge of the map, where scientific understanding and philosophy meet.
As a college student, Ananthaswamy enjoyed reading popular science writing. But “it never occurred to me that that was something I could do,” he says. He attended the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras to study electrical and electronics engineering before traveling to the U.S. to get his master’s degree at the University of Washington in Seattle. He worked as a software engineer in the 1990s, but he didn’t find it fulfilling. He’d go home and write short stories, dreaming of one day becoming a fiction writer.
Then, a chance encounter with an acquaintance who had attended the University of California, Santa Cruz Science Communication program changed his trajectory. “That’s when something clicked,” he says. He applied for the program, and got in, graduating in 2000. Learning how to be a reporter “opened up a whole new world,” he says. As long as you could understand the science and follow through with the reporting, “no story was off limits.”
At the end of the program, Ananthaswamy was accepted as an intern at his dream publication, New Scientist. He’s been working with the magazine in some capacity ever since — as a freelancer, staff writer, or editor.
During a stint working remotely in San Francisco, Ananthaswamy toyed with revisiting his early interest in fiction, even going so far as to land a book deal for a novel. “I never wrote a single word of that novel after signing the contract,” he says.
Instead, Ananthaswamy talked to his editor about a nonfiction book, for which he’d travel to remote mountaintops to compare two types of human structures built to ponder our place in the universe: telescopes and monasteries. That book would eventually evolve into “The Edge of Physics.” He followed the book with “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” a more inward-looking journey into the neuroscience of our sense of self, and “Through Two Doors at Once,” a book about quantum mechanics written from the perspective of the double-slit experiment.
Ananthaswamy is using his time as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow to immerse himself in two of his interests: machine learning and the philosophy of materialism, which holds that all phenomena, including human consciousness, can be explained as physical manifestations of matter. To explore machine learning “from the ground up,” Ananthaswamy has learned Python and PyTorch — his first foray into coding in over 15 years. To get his philosophy fix, he’s attending a seminar series about free will with the materialist philosopher Daniel Dennett.
And he might have finally found the perfect outlet for his interest in fiction. Materialism is still riddled with unknowns, making it challenging to tackle the subject using traditional journalism alone. But fiction would open up new avenues — including the possibility of exploring the philosophy through the lens of machine learning. With fiction, Ananthaswamy says, he can go right to the edge of the map and peek over, “to take a subject matter in a certain direction and see where it goes.”
This is the tenth in a series of profiles of the 2019-20 Knight Science Journalism fellows, written by students in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.