#Sciviews #2: Neel Patel makes 'staring into space' interesting.
02 October, 2019

#Sciviews #2: Neel Patel makes 'staring into space' interesting.

This is part two of #Sciviews, a series of interviews with top science story tellers around the world . If you don’t know anything about it, read what got us here.

A lifetime isn't enough to explore even a whit of what we think is our 'observatory' universe. I wish the story of space was as simple as reciting "twinkle twinkle little star...". It's amazing how this nursery rhyme says everything about us humans and our constant mental itch to know "what the hell are these things?"

Years of efforts, money, and time may have opened our eyes to what was unknown a few years ago, but if it wasn't for some bright minds who did an amazing job at telling the story of space, we'd still be sitting here, writing poetry about loving someone to the moon and back. It's 477,800 miles by the way (depending on where it is).  

We had the opportunity to speak to one such bright mind, Neel Patel, an experienced space and physics writer. Before reporting space stories for Technology Review, he spent a lot of time writing about interstellar travel and earnestly covered the rise of commercial spaceflight companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin. He was also the managing editor of SciArt magazine unearthing the intersections of science and art.

Talking to him was an absolute pleasure, it even gave us some great insights on how to tell better interstellar stories. Here's how it went:

1. You have written for many leading publications before, and I'm sure it's a mix of different audiences. How do you manage to pick the right story for your readers?

It really just depends on what the publication I’m writing for needs. Each outlet is different, writes for a different kind of readership, and specializes in a different kind of line of coverage. I think what matters more than just picking the right kind of story is figuring out the proper way to cover any given story. 12 publications will cover a story in 12 different ways, ideally.

2. You've been a science writer since the beginning of your professional life, is this true? Before joining Technology Review you have done some amazing pieces about space for some amazing journals. How did you end up in science journalism especially your love for the science of space? Tell us your story

I actually studied biology for my undergraduate studies at Virginia Tech, with a concentration in microbiology and immunology.  I initially wanted to get into laboratory research, but after a brief half-year stint as an undergrad in an immunology lab, I quickly realized I wasn’t exactly cut out for lab research, which requires an enormous amount of patience and a very keen diligence to rote procedures and methodology. I was a great writer, however, and my professor noticed I had a skill in communicating science really well. So I quickly decided to try to find opportunities to do more science journalism. I worked in the PR department for VT’s College of Natural Resources and Environment during my senior year and doing some blogging for smaller outlets, honing my skills and getting used to doing interviews with scientists. After graduating, I interned at The American Gardener for a few months and became more used to the editorial ins and outs of a magazine, and applied to NYU’s graduate program in journalism, where they have a Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP). This was really where my science journalism career took off, learning from some incredible professors who had years of vaunted experience, and getting an opportunity to tap into NYC’s media network. I had internships with Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum, and upon graduating I took on a reporting fellowship at Wired, in San Francisco. When that ended, I came back to NYC and started freelancing full time, with most of my work going towards writing for Inverse. That’s where my big foray into space reporting began, as I was the only science journalist at the company who was better equipped to write about some of the heavier sciences. So I honestly just sort of fell into it, and it’s just felt really easy and natural for me to cover space. The science of space really puts into perspective how small and transient or life here on Earth is, in the context of the cosmos, and I find that pretty enthralling.

3. I see there is an unimaginable future when it comes to space travel, though happenings like Sagittarius A eating up a whole neutron star is something out of our control, until a few months ago we didn't even know what a black hole looked like. What are your hopes when it comes to science and technology over the next few years especially for space related discoveries?

I hope we’re able to better understand the complexity of different extraterrestrial worlds, especially as it relates to habitability. I think the odds of finding intelligent life is almost non-existent (my biology background gives me an understanding of just how complex organic life is, and I think the odds of something like that springing up elsewhere in the planet is nigh impossible), but I think the odds of finding another planet that is potentially habitable to life of some kind (primitive) is a whole other story.

4. There are probably millions of secrets to life on planets we still haven't tapped. Would you recommend a book to make someone fall in love with the science of space? There can be more than one :)

I’ve never actually found much use out of using any books to turn people on to space. The people who buy and read space books are already interested. Better ways to get new people interested in space are through visuals — videos of rocket launches, gawking at space pictures, science fiction movies, etc.

5. What do you think about The Omni Calculator Project, which calculator you would be likely to recommend to your curious science audience?

I think it’s a pretty unique project. I’d probably recommend any of the physics calculators, since I think they do a really good job of making abstract physical concepts understandable.

6. What is that one science quote that speaks to you? There can be more than one :)

“The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.” — Lewis Thomas. I like this because it’s an example of how science isn’t always drive by a goal to move towards elegance. Sometimes it’s sheer chaos and error that pushes science forward.

Thanks to all the chaos and error we made it this far. I hope our curiosity takes us places. Also, more power to the ones fighting to make our current planet more habitable.

In case you missed our last story check out Signe Dean's never too curious approach to science story-telling. Stay tuned for more.