"Every Scientist’s Journey Is Unique" – Shweta Taneja, Author Of New Book On Indian Science
They Made What? They Found What? contains stories of inventions and discoveries by Indians scientists, past and present.
Swarajya interviews the book's author, Shweta Taneja, for insights on Indian science, scientists, and writing.
Scientists around the world, whether in academia, industry, or government, are working hard to come up with solutions to some of the most pressing problems of our times – climate change, public health, sustainable development, and clean energy, among others.
Inspired by these challenges, many young people too are choosing either to study science or take it up as a career.
In this climate of heightened science consciousness, especially since the arrival of the Covid-19 global pandemic, reading about the life and work of scientists from the past and present can provide knowledge, inspiration, and pride and be a source of hope for a better future.
A new book on Indian science, published by Hachette India and released on National Science Day (28 February), enables that by shining the spotlight on those individuals who spend their lives trying to demystify the world we inhabit and make it easier to understand and live in.
In They Made What? They Found What?, science-fiction author and journalist Shweta Taneja tells several stories of inventions and discoveries by Indian scientists. She gives readers a brief ringside view of the sparks of inspiration, periods of struggle, and rare moments of ‘eureka!’ experienced by various scientists in their journey to breakthroughs.
The book benefits from Taneja's rich experience in writing fiction, as the writing is clear and engaging. Although written primarily for kids, the book has an appeal potentially cutting across ages to draw in any curious beings. (Read Swarajya’s .)
Besides They Made What? They Found What?, Taneja is the author of seven published novels and is most known for her Anantya Tantrist Mysteries series.
To know more about her latest book — including her experiences writing it, takeaways, and about writing in general — Swarajya picked Taneja's brain. Here's the interview:
1) The idea of writing a book about Indian science and scientists seems to have come to you like your personal eureka moment. You have written that you suddenly became curious about how scientists were made while cooped up in your balcony during the 2020 lockdown. After spending time reading, researching, and speaking to scientists for over a year, where do you find yourself now with respect to your curiosities back then?
Shweta Taneja (SJ): I feel like I’ve just taken a little peek behind the curtains of the scientific world. Every scientist’s journey is so unique, their obsessions and passions so different, their field of science so complex that my learning curve remains high. I remain happily curious about how scientists invent things or discover new creatures out in the universe.
2) You cover a lot of scientific ground in your book. What was your experience with picking up new scientific knowledge and distilling it simply and clearly in writing? I have found that it’s not always easy to write about science for the general audience.
SJ: It was quite difficult, but what helped was that I’m not from the science background myself. I’ve studied literature, I’m a science journalist, but I don’t know all the terms of science. Since I was writing this book for kids, and since I didn’t know the language of science, I had to read up on the fields that the scientists themselves are working in, break down concepts, understand them myself and in that way, I managed to make these concepts accessible to children. I must confess, it was a really hard book for me to write but I’m happy it’s turned out well.
3) How was it reaching out to Indian scientists and speaking with them?
SJ: Most scientists are really busy, but they’re quite approachable. My first step was to email a scientist and most did answer back. Though I couldn’t interview some, because of time constraints, I’m happy with the collection of scientists that I could develop for the book.
4) In ancient Greek philosophy, they would depict a pyramid of civilisation with science as one of the pillars alongside such things as philosophy, religion, and politics. Over 2,000 years later, science remains as important as ever, but do you think it is still accorded that kind of importance in the public discourse, especially from the prism of media coverage?
SJ: There is not enough coverage of science within the public sphere. A lot of that coverage is taken up by discourse about technology, startups and computer science, which is woefully a small part of science overall, which also has physics, ecology, biology and all its fascinating subfields and chemistry. However, I do see that science communication is an upcoming field and a lot of young writers are taking it up as a full-time profession. We can do with more books on science for kids and adults and bring out scientists from their labs onto our television screens so we may think of them as idols.
5) India’s space agency ISRO has been extending its already-impressive CV with one remarkable achievement after another over the last couple of decades. Do you think this has been galvanising national interest in science the way the Apollo missions did for the US in the 1960s and 70s?
SJ: There is definitely high interest in space science in India thanks to ISRO and its space ambitions. I do hope that this initial interest can lead the public discourse towards other fields of science. Technology is great, but children and adults need to be aware of advances in life sciences like biochemistry, biotechnology, genetics, marine biology, social sciences, ecology or even physical sciences like chemistry, physics, earth science — as these are sciences which might dramatically change our lives. For example, Covid-19 has brought forth the importance of virologists and vaccine research in the country. We need to ramp up research in and awareness of basic sciences, which will bring us breakthroughs on tough problems like climate emergency, pollution, diseases and mutant viruses. That I feel is still missing.
6) NASA’s space missions have inspired some incredible literature and movies over the years. In the past decade, movies like Interstellar and Arrival and books like The Martian (later made into a movie too) were phenomenal. Do you see India heading in this direction as well?
SJ: I would certainly hope so. I feel like India’s space aspirations have finally broken through into the mass culture and we will definitely see that reflecting more in popular movies. Hasn’t that already begun with movies like Mission Mangal?
7) Congratulations on the accolades you’ve received for your novels and other writings in India and elsewhere, such as being a finalist in the French award Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire (2020) and the Charles Wallace Writing Fellowship (2016). What’s the writing journey been like for you?
SJ: Writing is like a rollercoaster ride. There are some highs. Like when you have those beautiful, velvety days where your fingers glide on the keyboard, putting in gorgeous sentences on screen. Or when your book reaches the bestseller stands, you receive awards or fellowships or children gift you paintings of owls. Then there are the lows, days when you’re all alone with an empty page (a nightmare for any writer, at any stage of their life) or when you tackle doubts about your writing, about yourself and your world. It’s been an eventful journey, where I’ve dealt with both fame and failure. However, it’s a journey that I have happily chosen and would like to continue on for a while.
8) What’s your writing process?
SJ: The idea stage is the most beautiful, as the idea comes with bits and pieces of fluff and perfection in your mind. Once the idea has germinated, I take out little chits of paper — torn from recycled paper — and jot down scenes, characters, dialogues, everything that my brain is pouring out. That’s the beginning of a plot. From there, my journalistic instinct takes over. I create a time table to finish a first draft and write a chapter a week. Once the first draft is over, I edit, edit and edit again, a process I do not like much but is essential for the book to become better. After that, it’s finding a publisher, editing some more, and finally seeing a beautiful product in your hands.
9) Give us a brief look at your reading list and a more generous serving of book recommendations — any theme or genre would do, including any gems you may have come across while reading up for They Found What? They Made What?
SJ: Since a while now, thanks to researching on They Made What? They Found What?, I’ve been interested in narrative non-fiction as a subgenre. For the book, I read Gene Machine by Dr Venki Ramakrishnan (which inspires his chapter in the book). It’s a fantastic read and a well-done narrative non-fiction book and I highly recommend it.
Then I’ve read graphic novels like Mandela, Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle, Palestine by Joe Sacco, and Bhimayana by Durgabai Subhash. In books, it’s classics like A Feast of Vultures by Josy Joseph (a hard read, so I’m taking it slow), new ones like Patriarchy and the Pangolin by Aditi Patel, and in international ones, it’s The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan, and Dictatorland by Paul Kenyon.
In fiction, I’ve been exploring various subgenres of science fiction since a while now with a special interest in diverse and feminist SF (science fiction). Waste Tide by Chen Quifan, which I absolutely loved, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, Octavia Butler’s Parable series, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, Ahmad Saadawi’s hard-hitting Frankenstein in Baghdad, Manjula Padmanabhan’s The Island of Lost Girls, and Becky Chamber’s entertaining The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet are some of my recent reads.
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