Of Science, Fiction and Outreach

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    Dr Tasneem Zehra Husain: first Pakistani female string theorist, writer, and science communicator

    Dr Tasneem Zehra Husain is a theoretical physicist and the first Pakistani woman to specialise in string theory, a theoretical framework attempting to describe the fundamental building blocks of the universe. She was educated at Kinnaird College, Quaid-i-Azam University, the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics, and got her doctorate from Stockholm University. She has been a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University and helped establish the School of Science and Engineering at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

    Passionate about writing and outreach, Tasneem published her debut novel Only The Longest Threads in 2014. The book presents first-hand, fictionalised accounts of people witnessing the major moments of discovery in the history of physics. Tasneem teaches writing, conducts workshops for science teachers and writes popular science for various online and print magazines.

    Recently, Spectra Magazine had a chance to interact with Tasneem and talk about her work. We also pressed her for thoughts about the current state of science in Pakistan.

    What attracted you to physics?

    As far back as I can remember I’ve enjoyed puzzles; number games, word puzzles, brain-teasers, I find them all equally irresistible. I enjoy figuring out how disconnected, and apparently different, pieces come together to create a coherent whole. I am perpetually intrigued by how it is possible to plug in gaps, just by extrapolating from what you know.

    I also really like knowing how things work – not necessarily at the practical nuts and bolts level, but conceptually. So, while I wasn’t one of those kids who build circuits and take things apart, I was always constructing mental blueprints. This naturally culminated in a curiosity about the workings of the natural world, for the reasons behind the immense variety, and often awe-inspiring beauty, of physical phenomena. If you had asked me at age 11 why I loved physics, that is probably what I would have told you.

    What I couldn’t have articulated then, but am now increasingly aware of, is the deep allure mental models hold for me. I am fascinated by how we build abstract representations, the manner in which we imbue them with logic, carry out symbolic manipulations, and how, while operating with this idealized system under a set of assumptions and restrictions, we are able to reach conclusions about the highly non-linear, strongly correlated, physical systems that exist outside our minds.

    It is rare to find a theoretical physicist who writes fiction. How did it start?

    The love for fiction came before I felt the attraction of physics. I was writing soon after I learnt how to read. Books have played a formative role in my life, and I have always been conscious of the deep power of words, and their almost spell-like influence on me. So, regardless of what else I did, writing was inevitable.

    Unlike most other popular science books, your first book Only the Longest Threads does the science storytelling literally through stories. What was the idea behind this?

    The structure of the book took a long time to emerge. I didn’t work to a plan so much as by instinct. I was just as often writing away from what I wanted to avoid as I was writing towards what I wanted to express. With Only The Longest Threads, I was not seeking to write another popular non-fiction account of string theory; that had already been done multiple times – very well – by researchers at the forefront of the field. What moved me, more than the desire to relay facts or even concepts, was the urge to communicate the feeling of being immersed in these ideas. I wanted to explain what I do, and why I do it. As a theoretical physicist, I get asked that a lot and it’s not an easy question to answer. At the end of the day, there’s nothing tangible we have to show for our efforts, except pages covered with equations. How does one translate that into something that makes sense to people who lack a mathematical background but are genuinely curious? How does one explain this abstract endeavour without patronizing the questioner, yet doing justice to the question? Only The Longest Threads is my attempt at an answer.

    I wanted readers to be able to experience science for themselves, and fiction was the only way I knew how. It seems to me that non-fiction necessarily separates the reader and writer; no matter how personal the tone of the piece, you’re stuck on the outside. In fiction, there is no distance. You step into someone else’s shoes and get to know them from the inside. As has undoubtedly happened to us all, I have often found myself describing situations and experiences from my own life in words borrowed from a favourite fictional character. It’s almost as if, having lived with their thoughts for so long, I have learned to think as they do. This propensity for interpreting life in different ways and through different vocabularies has enriched me more than I can say.

    I wanted the narrators in Only The Longest Threads to have an enhanced view of the world; superimposed on what is visible to us all, they spy another layer that is physics’ gift to them. I wanted to give my readers a glimpse of this wondrous, but often hidden, dimension. My hope is that if they dwell in it long enough, they will learn to conjure it up for themselves.

    What do the 10 or 11 dimensions proposed by string theory look like? How can we see them? (I am reminded of Edwin Abbott’s novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions where a 3-dimensional object visits a 2-dimensional universe and tries describing 3 dimensions to the inhabitants there.)

    That’s a tricky question to answer, because while most of these dimensions are spatial (9, or 10, depending on whether you’re talking of superstring theory as it was originally formulated, or using it as an umbrella term to include later developments), all but 3 of them are so small that they lie beyond sight. Strictly speaking, therefore, we will never ‘see’ them – they are beyond the reach of anything that can be probed by visible light. The most we can hope to do, tangibly, is to measure their consequences; to record a physical effect of some phenomena that is contingent upon the existence of these tiny curled up spatial dimensions.

    The Flatland analogy is a useful mental model because it gives you a sort of visual metaphor. You can intuit that perhaps there exist higher dimensions, to whom you are Flatlanders several times over – but that conceptual realization still does not equip you to visualize higher dimensions; our human minds are not equipped to ‘see’ the world in more than three. And that is why mathematics becomes essential in such realms. Math gives us the tools and abilities to navigate worlds beyond sight.

    Despite a remarkable increase in the number of educational institutes, Pakistan has not been successful in producing a considerable number of quality scientists. What are we doing wrong?

    I don’t think that there is a single easy answer to a question as complicated as this, but I do believe that a crucial first step is to create a culture that values research. Academics have to be given the time, and space, and leisure, to pursue ideas based on their intellectual appeal, and not always in the service of a tangible goal. New knowledge is not often arrived at by charting the most efficient course from Point A to Point B – it usually lies along the byways. Academics need to have protected time, away from teaching, away from administrative duties; time to be spent in the company of peers, discussing ideas, exploring these intellectual side roads. As long as that is perceived to be a luxury, research can never prosper. And until we are in the business of creating knowledge, rather than just consuming it, it will never truly become ours.

    What do you think are the major challenges in building world-class science institutions in Pakistan?

    The biggest challenge, I think, is to institute a cultural shift. To redefine what we consider valuable; to shift our gaze from the short-term, high visibility measures politicians like to implement before the next election and invest in more substantial changes that lay the ground for true growth. It’s the difference between taking the time to dig a proper foundation on which to build a stable structure, and erecting a fancy building on quicksand. Most of the grandiose new schemes instated by any government are undone by the next. Few are willing to invest in the non-glamorous grassroots work that really needs to be done because it takes longer to become visible – but it is far more crucial. As long as we continue to focus on instant gratification, it is impossible to build for the future. We no longer have the luxury of tackling just a single problem at a time. We cannot wait to invest in research until we have universal literacy. We cannot deny our countrymen advanced medical procedures until we eradicate polio. We must proceed on both planes simultaneously.

    As a case in point, during my years in Pakistan, I was constantly asked, ‘In a country where people don’t have universal access to clean water, why are you pursuing string theory? What will we get from that?’ It’s not an either/or problem. Clean water is a basic human right, but neither am I diverting any resources from that, nor am I qualified to procure it. That’s like saying that there are so many problems in the country, you shouldn’t write literature, poetry or prose. We need to make life more livable, but we also need to make it worth living!

    This may sound very idealistic, but it is not impossible to achieve. India has many challenges similar to our own, and yet they have been able to create institutes where research in theoretical physics is conducted at international standards.

    At Spectra Magazine, we try to train Pakistani university and high school students in popular science writing and journalism. Please share with us briefly some lessons that you have learnt through your science writing and outreach.

    There seems to be a growing chasm between scientists and the public. Such a disconnect is dangerous because of the increasing impact scientific advances have on daily life, and the reciprocal impact voters have on determining which research projects are funded. It is clear that this breach desperately needs to be healed, but I doubt that even the best-intentioned efforts to ‘educate’ the public by presenting data and arguments clearly, will suffice. In my opinion, the crucial ingredient, the key to establishing a connection with the audience, is a willingness to show both the heart and the mind of science. We must go beyond the neutral, objective, facade academia trains us to employ, and portray a more complex, nuanced, view. By talking about the frustrations and failures along with the victories, for instance, we can convey a far truer picture of the actual process and practice of science. By talking about the unique perspectives, the personal passions and challenges of individual scientists, we can highlight the vast range of opinion, expertise, talent and motivation that exists within the collective ‘we’ scientists habitually use when referring to themselves. There is such richness and diversity in this vast, international group, odds are almost every reader will find someone to relate to.

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