I have been writing as a matter of habit since 2003, when I started my first diary. I continued the habit through three years of school after that, six years of college and seven years of work – and it still goes on.
However, why I write has changed. When I started my first blog in 2008, for example, I began writing to communicate ideas in physics that fascinated me. When I remodelled my blog in 2012, I began writing to opine about the news of the day. After I started getting more active on Twitter in 2016, I began writing to please an audience. This might sound crass but in many ways, it has served me well. For example, I have learnt a lot about why good writing alone can at best only be half of the publishing process.
Nonetheless, I also noticed that I was forgetting how to write for myself – an essential part of my habit that I had been taking for granted in its formative years and the consequences of whose erosion I began to experience only after it was mostly gone.
If you read my posts and enjoy them, I will be glad, but I will not stop writing if you stop reading. My apologies if this endeavour offends your sensibilities as a reader; that is not my intent. I simply wish to rediscover what it means to write irrespective of the commercial value of ideas that such writing expresses. I should clarify that this exercise isn’t as virtuous as it might seem, if at all: the writing habit was once therapeutic and I would like if it were so once again.
I work in journalism, as a science editor, but I am a communicator at heart.
The idea of complexity has always been fascinating. As someone who thinks and learns through the act of writing, I have been able to surmount different complicated topics in different ways. As a communicator of physics research, I have encountered two broad kinds of complexity: intricacy and inherent complexity. Intricacy is best imagined as a dense cluster of information that simply takes time to disentangle, but can be disentangled and laid out by the repetitive application of some kind of clarificatory process. Inherent complexity is relatively more inescapable in that its clarification is not a question of tedium but of intelligence.
For example, the Large Hadron Collider is a very large machine composed of millions of (relatively) tiny parts. Its operators have much less uncertainty about the machine’s performance than a casual observer would expect because they understand how all the parts work together. However, understanding how the brain – a far smaller organ – performs its functions takes a nasty combination of neurology, electrochemistry, quantum mechanics and knowledge of emergent properties to appreciate, and even then not fully.
I have loathed inherent complexity because it defies my personal expectation that reality is intricate, not complex. This would seem to be an irrational position to assume because humans are neither materially nor biologically equipped to naturally engage with the different energies and spatiotemporal scales at which the universe manifests itself. However, writing is another beast entirely, and its practice affords us a variety of opportunities, each employing a different ratio of faith to education, to understand why things happen. By writing, and writing as often as I can, the idea has taken root in my mind that there is almost always a continuous and smooth line connecting every phenomenon and the first principles at the bottom.
The exceptions have almost always concerned quantum mechanics and the social sciences; stories embedded in the latter have been particularly formidable. But I remain convinced — to the chagrin of not a few physicists and social scientists — that communication needn’t have to be unfaithful to reality, that it is wholly possible to communicate inherent complexity while staying faithful to the truth, to reality itself. I will always refuse to believe, for example, that excruciatingly twisted sentences such as this are required to communicate the idea it bears, that it is simply not a case of subpar communication.
However, I will admit, as I have after discovering this short essay by Daniel Sarewitz in 2013, that we surmount inherent complexity with faith instead of knowledge more often than we’d like to believe. But I will also say that as long as we remain cognisant of this behaviour as well as the lines at which faith ends and knowledge begins, we also keep ourselves available to grapple with the implicit claims of inherent complexity without lying to ourselves. Isn’t such confrontation the ultimate point of it all?
Most fluids are thixotropic: they become less viscous the longer they experience shearing forces (which you can impart by simply shaking the bottle the fluid is in). However, not all fluids exhibit this property; on a rare occasion, you might come across a rheopectic fluid: they become more viscous the longer they experience shearing forces. The technical term for this property is rheopecty, or rheopexy. Researchers expect rheopectic fluids to be useful in body armour and as lubricants. In fact, synovial fluid – a naturally occurring rheopectic fluid – lubricates synovial joints in mammals, in which it is the most common joint type.
This blog doesn’t pay tribute to rheopexy but draws inspiration from its symbolism. I am a slow thinker (and subscribe to Derek Sivers’s thoughts on the subject). This attribute doesn’t bode well for me as a reporter because I am bad at composing rebuttals on the spot; however, it doesn’t interfere with my duties as an editor. More importantly, my tendency to go slow often works to my advantage when I am presented with sensitive, potentially nuanced issues. Like a startled rheopectic fluid, I become disinclined to go with the flow, and stubbornly resist the progression of deductions until I – and my interlocutors – have been able to distill a reasonable position.
However, unlike a rheopectic fluid, which is always rheopectic, I am not; sometimes, and frequently after having concluded an interview or having published an article, I find that I didn’t challenge an idea enough. There is still a switch I need to flip irrespective of the advantages bestowed by my naturally slow thinking, and it isn’t that this switch needs to be destroyed: it’s simply not healthy to be overtly deliberative about everything (like Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place). Instead, I need to get to the point where I always flip the switch ‘on’ or ‘off’ at the right time, and to my mind, unifying my writing habit – and the advantages this habit has brought – with this endeavour makes perfect sense.
Quotes of note
To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality.John Ruskin
The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naive believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather. The critic is not the one who alternates haphazardly between antifetishism and postivism like the drunk iconoclast drawn by Goya, but the one for whom, if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile, and thus in great need of care and caution. I am aware that to get at the heart of this argument one would have to renew also what it means to be a constructivist, but I have said enough to indicate the direction of critique, not away but toward the gathering, the Thing.Bruno Latour, Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern
After a cup of tea (two spoonsful for each cup, and don’t let it stand more than three minutes,) it says to the brain, “Now, rise, and show your strength. Be eloquent, and deep, and tender; see, with a clear eye, into Nature and into life; spread your white wings of quivering thought, and soar, a god-like spirit, over the whirling world beneath you, up through long lanes of flaming stars to the gates of eternity!Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat