The Higgs boson and I

My first byline as a professional journalist (a.k.a. my first byline ever) was oddly for a tech story – about the advent of IPv6 internet addresses. I started writing it after 7 pm, had to wrap it up by 9 pm and it was published in the paper the next day (I was at The Hindu).

The first byline that I actually wanted to take credit for appeared around a month later, on July 4, 2012 – ten years ago – on the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe. I published a live blog as Fabiola Gianotti, Joe Incandela and Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the spokespersons of the ATLAS and CMS detector collaborations and the director-general of CERN, respectively, announced and discussed the results. I also distinctly remember taking a pee break after telling readers “I have to leave my desk for a minute” and receiving mildly annoyed, but also amused, comments complaining of TMI.

After the results had been announced, the science editor, R. Prasad, told me that R. Ramachandran (a.k.a. Bajji) was filing the main copy and that I should work around that. So I wrote a ‘what next’ piece describing the work that remained for physicists to do, including open problems in particle physics that stayed open and the alternative theories, like supersymmetry, required to explain them. (Some jingoism surrounding the lack of acknowledgment for S.N. Bose – wholly justifiable, in my view – also forced me to write this.)

I also remember placing a bet with someone that the Nobel Prize for physics in 2012 wouldn’t be awarded for the discovery (because I knew, but the other person didn’t, that the nominations for that year’s prizes had closed by then).

To write about the feats and mysteries of particle physics is why I became a science journalist, so the Higgs boson’s discovery being announced a month after I started working was special – not least because it considerably eased the amount of effort I had to put in to pitches and have them accepted (specifically, I didn’t have to spend too much time or effort spelling out why a story was important). It was also a great opportunity for me to learn about how breaking news is reported as well as accelerated my induction into the newsroom and its ways.

But my interest in particle physics has since waned, especially from around 2017, as I began to focus in my role as science editor of The Wire (which I cofounded/joined in May 2015) on other areas of science as well. My heart is still with physics, and I have greatly enjoyed writing the occasional article about topological phases, neutrino astronomy, laser cooling and, recently, the AdS/CFT correspondence.

A couple years ago, I realised during a spell of daydreaming that even though I have stuck with physics, my act of ‘dropping’ particle physics as a specialty had left me without an edge as a writer. Just physics was and is too broad – even if there are very few others in India writing on it in the press, giving me lots of room to display my skills (such as they are). I briefly considered and rejected quantum computing and BECCS technologies – the former because its stories were often bursting with hype, especially in my neck of the woods, and the latter because, while it seemed important, it didn’t sit well morally. I was indifferent towards them because they were centered on technologies whereas I wanted to write about pure, supposedly boring science.

In all, penning an article commemorating the tenth anniversary of the announcement of the Higgs boson’s discovery brought back pleasant memories of my early days at The Hindu but also reminded me of this choice that I still need to make, for my sake. I don’t know if there is a clear winner yet, although quantum physics more broadly and condensed-matter physics more specifically are appealing. This said, I’m also looking forward to returning to writing more about physics in general, paralleling the evolution of The Wire Science itself (some announcements coming soon).

I should also note that I started blogging in 2008, when I was still an undergraduate student of mechanical engineering, in order to clarify my own knowledge of and thoughts on particle physics.

So in all, today is a special day.