An Interview with Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover’s 2015 Quanta Magazine story “Visions of Future Physics” profiles Nima Arkani-Hamed, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, whose mission is to understand the universe and to build the world’s larger particle collider. Throughout the story, Wolchover weaves in topics as tough as amplituhedrons, while creating an intimate portrayal of her main character. At one point she tells a story about his flight from Iran shortly after the Shah was overthrown in 1979 — an escape that left the 10-year-old boy deathly ill — and how the sight of the Milky Way and his drive to understand the universe may have kept him alive.

Wolchover is hardly a one-hit wonder. Her stories consistently engage the reader in tough topics with the help of masterful ledes, smart transitions, easy-to-understand analogies, quirky characters and so much more. It’s no wonder she won this year’s Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, a prize given annually to a young science journalist. Here, Showcase picks her brain.

Natalie Wolchover. Photo courtesy of Jean Sweep.
Natalie Wolchover. Photo courtesy of Jean Sweep.

When digging for new stories, long before you pitch them to your editor, what do you look for most? What criteria does a good story have?

Above all, I am looking for a new idea or finding that scientists in the relevant community think is important. Even if it’s something really abstruse that doesn’t seem like it would have broad appeal and doesn’t have any buzzwords to speak of, if actual experts think something is a big deal, then there’s a reason for that, and it’s up to me to figure out what the story is and how to tell it. 

Everything else that makes a compelling story — interesting historical background, strong characters, controversy, vivid scenes — is incidental. I’m thrilled when it’s there (and it almost always is), but I’m first and foremost going after groundbreaking new developments, as judged by experts. Now to find out about those developments before everybody else does, I have to be tapped in and talk to a lot of scientists. Building and maintaining those relationships takes time and is tough to balance with all of one’s other duties as a reporter, but it’s the springboard for everything else. 

You have a knack for making people in your stories come alive. Is this something you cater your interview questions toward? If so, do you have any special tricks or prompts for helping draw those details out when they don’t come naturally from researchers?

Thank you! Yes, it can be very tricky to include personal details in science articles without them feeling awkwardly shoehorned in. One approach I use is to get my interview subjects to talk about their research in narrative form. So for instance I’ll ask when the story of [whatever research I’m writing about] began. They’ll start at what they see as the beginning — a groundbreaking paper, say, or a question that motivated them in grad school — and tell the whole thing as a story, with dramatic high points, anecdotes and personal details entering in naturally because that’s how stories work. You can ask them for deeper explanations of concepts separately if you need to, but the important thing is to hear their story. As you hear more and more versions of the same story from different sources, it gradually becomes clear how you should tell the story. And the personal details, anecdotes, and personalities that shaped that story are the natural elements to include in its retelling.

So, to say that a different way, unless I’m doing a profile or Q&A, I don’t usually ask the scientists I’m interviewing personal questions and try to work their answers into the narrative on my own. The extent to which someone’s personal life influences the science that I’m writing about is the extent to which it should be featured in the story about the science. As for picking up on those influences, being a good listener is key. If you sense that some sentiment or personality trait or experience seems to have been important in framing how a researcher arrived at an idea or approach, ask them more about it. Science is a human activity, so the humans will almost always turn out to be part of the story — no shoehorning necessary. 

On the same note, I have to ask about Nima Arkani-Hamed’s flight from Iran in 1979 (featured in the story “Visions of Future Physics”). It nearly brought me to tears — something I was not expecting in a profile of a theoretical physicist! How did you obtain such intimate, vivid details about his childhood, and how did you decide where to place this anecdote within the story?

I looked back at my notes and found that the Iran escape story came up six hours into my first day of conversations with Nima. So, in terms of how to obtain such intimate details, sometimes it’s probably just a matter of sticking around; eventually your interviewee realizes that you’re looking to dig a little deeper into their background and psyche, and they start letting you in. 

At first I didn’t know what to do with the Iran escape story. I wasn’t sure how it connected to the theme of Nima as this leading, messianic sort of physicist, and so I was worried it would seem shoehorned in. But then, when I interviewed Nima’s parents for another take on the Iran story, his mother added what turned out to be the crucial detail — the part about how the sight of the Milky Way and her promise of a telescope revived Nima or even kept him alive. That element connected the story very straightforwardly to the bigger picture of who Nima is, to his incredible drive to understand the universe. That was a good reminder to keep digging when you feel stuck until you find that thread.

To the last question about figuring out where to place that section in the profile, I can only say, through many hours of agonizing and fiddling! Structuring the profile in general was a real puzzle. My editor and I discussed it at length. There were so many elements vying for center stage: Nima’s remarkable personality, his unique role in fundamental physics, the Chinese collider project, the naturalness/multiverse question, his entrancing new vision of space and time. With so much going on, there was never a chance that this would flow like a straightforward narrative, so I think what we went with was just the least jarring, best balanced arrangement of parts. 

Physics is tough to explain, but you seem to do it with such ease. How do you come up with new analogies to explain something as challenging to grasp as gravitational waves or superconductivity?

I will first say that I don’t do it with ease, not really — but I’m glad to hear I’ve got sprezzatura! It can take a lot of effort to find the right, simple-sounding explanation. The main goal is to try to take the shortest possible route from what a layperson knows to the concept I’m trying to explain, a route that doesn’t include a single word’s worth of unnecessary information or skip any logical steps. When an explanation seems really complicated, it’s usually because there are either extraneous details clogging up your attention or essential logical connections not being made. 

Analogies help (and I don’t know how I come up with them besides just sitting and thinking!), but apt turns of phrase are the best tools for expressing complex ideas tersely. Looking around for an example from one of the articles we’re talking about, I found this: “According to [Einstein’s general theory of relativity], space and time form a stretchy fabric that bends under heavy objects, and to feel gravity is to fall along the fabric’s curves. But can the ‘space-time’ fabric ripple like the skin of a drum?” We’ve got the helpful drum analogy for picturing what gravitational waves are, but the real winner here is “to feel … is to fall” — that phrase took me a while to land on, but I think it really succinctly expresses how gravity works in general relativity.

Most stories on LIGO’s gravitational-wave discovery dove into the science implications of the announcement by discussing what we’ll learn about black holes or neutron stars. Instead in the story “Gravitational Waves Discovered at Long Last,” you dove into the history of the announcement, a technique that allowed you to explain the technology and place the discovery in a unique context. Why did you decide on this storyline?

I definitely felt it was important to touch on what we can learn about black holes from gravitational waves. But in terms of the story — what makes a story? A story has a tension and a resolution. In this case, it didn’t seem natural to set up the tension as our lack of knowledge of black holes with the LIGO announcement as the resolution. Because, at the time of the announcement, we hadn’t resolved any questions about black holes yet, so that wouldn’t have made for a very satisfying story. It seemed to me that the natural tension here was the century of uncertainty about whether gravitational waves exist and, if they do, whether they could be detected, considering their almost inconceivable tininess. That tension invites you to tell the story of these scientists’ foolhardy mission to build this incredibly complicated machine, to delve into how the machine works, and to give a behind-the-scenes look at what happened after they made a detection, how cautious they were before announcing it. The reader will care about those details when it’s all heading toward this really satisfying resolution to the tension you’ve set up. 

For the story “A Fight for the Soul of Science” I can only imagine what a mess it would be to write about an intensive workshop on physics and philosophy. Do you have any organizational tricks — both in reporting and writing — that helped?

Yep, for those three days of the workshop, I was truly a mess — sipping Coke Zero at 3 a.m. every night, that kind of thing — but I got the story filed on time, and didn’t come down with a cold until afterward! One obvious tip is to prepare as much as possible ahead of a big reporting trip like that. Before the workshop, I did lots of reading and emailed or chatted with several of the speakers to find out what they had planned. That way, I went into those three days knowing what the different perspectives were that I would need to include in my article, and what to look out for in terms of striking exchanges or scenes.

Another tip is to record everything, all the talks, Q&A sessions, discussions, because you just never know when that perfect dramatic statement or exchange is going to happen. For organizing my recordings and notes, I live for a program called Audionote, which syncs the audio that your computer is recording with whatever you are typing. You can take sketchy notes while you are recording, and then later easily search through the notes to find the good parts that you want to transcribe.

In terms of how to organize the writing itself when you are reporting on a workshop or other scientific happening, the most difficult decision for me is always what scene to choose for the lede. You do ideally want to start with a scene, but (as with any story) you also have to very quickly set up the tension, and that can be difficult when you’re also trying to describe a scene. One trick that came in handy for this piece and others was to open with the speaker giving the introductory remarks, since they are doing exactly what you need to do — setting up the tension, setting the scene. In this case I got lucky with the first speaker being the always eloquent David Gross, delivering a pithy line by Richard Feynman that perfectly captured what the workshop was about. 

It’s clear from your stories that an impressive amount of work is put into each one. How long does a typical news story take? How many people do you interview? And when do you know when to quit reporting and start writing?

A typical story can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to many months depending on how involved it is and how intensely I’m working on it. I interview about a dozen people for about an hour each, on average, but I might circle back to the main sources several times.

It’s not hard to tell when you’re ready to start writing. At first, with each interview you do, you learn so much. Then the gains start to drop off. As you get a better handle on the science and the story, new conversations stop turning up fresh information and instead mostly confirm what you already know. At that point you’re ready to write.

How do you go about structuring those long features? 

I try to set up the tension of the story right away — that first sentence is prime real estate — and then spend the rest of the piece working toward the resolution, always holding something back. It helps to break up a story into sections, typically 800-word mini-stories, each one with its own tension-resolution arc (with the end of the section hinting at the next section’s tension so the reader can’t bail). Each narrative arc takes you a little closer to the end of the overall arc. 

The hardest part of structuring a piece is figuring out how to draw the reader past the intro section, which has to deliver the main news or takeaway (so they know why they’re reading this) without leaving them fully satisfied. There’s a unique solution to this problem for each piece. Looking at the articles we’ve talked about, with the Arkani-Hamed profile, the intro essentially creates an aura around Nima and conveys his importance, but the reader hasn’t heard from him yet. By the end of the intro, you’re eager for an interaction with him, and the start of section two delivers on that. The LIGO story ends the intro with a promise that you’re going to get a behind-the-scenes look at the discovery you’ve been hearing so much about. The article about the physics and philosophy workshop uses a trick that works more often than anything else: Section two starts with an “OK, let’s back up for a second and lay out the necessary historical/scientific context,” which the reader — if the intro has done a good enough job drawing them in — will be feeling that they need in order to more deeply understand the issues.

One of our first blogs at Showcase analyzed why so few physics stories win awards. Many experts speculated that it’s because these stories often fail to show an obvious impact on society. Is this something that you think about when writing stories?

Yep, the societal impact of fundamental physics research is often tenuous or so long-term as to be pointless to speculate about. But journalists err when they try to justify its importance through that criterion. When last year’s Nobel Prize was given for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, there were articles telling readers that the reason they should care is that neutrinos might someday allow them to send text messages through Earth’s core. That’s nonsense, and so insulting to readers’ intelligence; it made me really angry! Fundamental physics is about figuring out how the universe works, tapping into the hidden order underlying this wondrous, complex reality that we experience. This is a pursuit that transcends our everyday concerns. And if we as journalists can share that pursuit with the public — if we can lucidly explain what the deepest questions are and where we stand in our attempts to answer them — that’s the way in which we impact society, the way we make people’s lives richer and better.

What’s your advice to physics writers?

I’m still learning, of course, and yet there is so much I could say here; let me just give a random smattering of advice. Probably my biggest recommendation is to talk to a lot of physicists. In lieu (or on top) of reading press releases or blogs or perusing the arXiv, visit physicists in their offices and labs, go to conferences, go to local talks, check in with sources over email — even if you aren’t sure whether these efforts will bear fruit. You never know when some offhand comment in a conversation will turn into your next big story, or when your notes from a talk will provide helpful context for a piece you end up writing three years from now. And when you’re reporting a story and feel lost, so often just talking to more people will sort you out. 

A second bit of advice is: sometimes it can be difficult to figure out which outside sources to consult about a new paper. Ask the authors. Ask them for names of both people who agree with them and their critics. First of all, their reaction to this will be interesting, but secondly, most physicists are honest, skeptical people who see the value in hearing a range of views, so they will usually readily refer you to their sharpest critics.

Third, a great piece of advice from physics writer Graham Farmelo: During interviews, keep your recorder on ’til the bitter end. So often, the juiciest, most quotable comment is the last thing said, when a person is bluntly summing up their perspective, after the Q&A seems to have officially ended.

Lastly, be empathetic to your reader, who has the wonderful quality of being curious about how the universe works. Do your utmost to get into their mind, anticipate their questions and blindspots, and satisfy their desire to understand. It’s both our duty and our incredible privilege to spend our days this way, distilling concepts into their simplest possible essences and weaving them into the easiest-to-follow narratives; take the responsibility seriously.