INTERVIEW: Alok Jha Trapped in Antarctica

Article published on April 1, 2014
Article published on April 1, 2014

On Christ­mas Eve last year, 77 sci­en­tists and ex­plor­ers got stranded in Antarc­tica for 9 days after their ship, the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, got trapped in ice. Cafeba­bel caught up with Guardian sci­ence correspondent Alok Jha, who was part of the ex­pe­di­tion. We spoke about re­port­ing from Antarc­tica, his fu­ture plans, and the se­cret be­hind Harry Pot­ter’s in­vis­i­bil­ity cloak…

Cafébabel: So what mo­ti­vated you to em­bark on this ex­pe­di­tion?

Alok Jha: ­Sci­en­tists at the Uni­ver­sity of New South Wales in Aus­tralia were or­gan­is­ing this ex­pe­di­tion which was a hun­dred years on from the orig­i­nal Dou­glas Maw­son ex­pe­di­tion. [Maw­son] was one of the first ex­plor­ers of Antarc­tica. I thought it would be a good op­por­tu­nity for two things, one it’s an amaz­ing place to ac­cess, you don’t have very much ac­cess to these kinds of places as a re­porter. And per­son­ally it is some­where I have al­ways wanted to go.

Cafébabel: Can you de­scribe  the work you were doing be­fore being struck  in the ice?

Alok Jha: I was with my col­league Lau­rence Topham who was tak­ing pho­tos and mak­ing videos. We just treated the ship as a place we were re­port­ing from.

Cafébabel: What was the gen­eral sen­ti­ment when you re­alised that the boat was struck?

Alok Jha: What hap­pened was that we woke up one morn­ing and we were stuck. Some peo­ple were much more stressed than oth­ers. Other peo­ple knew much more than oth­ers. So it is like real life, it’s messy. But Lau­rence and I were I just very busy and it was a beau­ti­ful place to be to be hon­est.

Cafébabel: Were you glad things  turned out that way, from a re­porter’s per­spec­tive?

Alok Jha: I think there are lots of rea­sons why it would have been good to come home at the right time. But I’m happy it hap­pened be­cause it was ex­cit­ing to be in­volved in it. It was con­fus­ing. It’s all the un­ex­pected things that are the most in­ter­est­ing and it shows you a lot about peo­ple. About how you react to those things.

In the doc­u­men­tary and also in the ar­ti­cles, what we tried to do is tell a very hon­est, fair ac­count of what was going on. So it is not one per­son’s ac­count, it’s mul­ti­ple ac­counts put to­gether. Be­cause one per­son’s ac­count won’t give you the true story. As a re­porter your job is to not over­hype any­thing or un­der­play any­thing but to ac­cu­rately re­flect­.

Cafébabel: Some re­searchers crit­i­cised the ex­pe­di­tion as a glo­ri­fied tourist trip that se­ri­ously dented real sci­en­tific re­search in the re­gion. What do you think about this?

Alok Jha: The ex­pe­di­tion got trapped ob­vi­ously and then were res­cued by Chi­nese and Aus­tralian ice break­ers, and the French came too. They had other work to do. It is very hard to get down the Antarc­tic and any delay to their plans is going to cause some sort of dam­age. It is im­por­tant to re­search the Antarc­tic, which is partly the rea­son we were there.

But Antarc­tica is not owned by any­one. It is not owned by sci­en­tists. Any­one has the right to go there so ac­tu­ally it is not up to sci­en­tists to feel bad about [that]. I do feel some­times sci­en­tists and sci­ence or­gan­i­sa­tions have an ar­ro­gant at­ti­tude to­ward what they do, so if you’re not doing sci­ence then you’re not wor­thy. Sci­ence is an im­por­tant in­tel­lec­tual ex­er­cise only as far as mem­bers of the pub­lic want you to do it. And there are no sci­en­tists who are be­yond all of that.

Cafébabel: Live tweet­ing  and pub­lish­ing from the South Pole must have been a bit tricky,  how did you man­age that?

Alok Jha: In sum­mary we had a BGAN (Broad­band Global Area Net­work) satel­lite con­nec­tion which goes all the way down to the tip of Antarc­tica. It was very slow. We would con­nect for maybe half an hour a day, we would send lots of tweets, vines and things and then do the same thing the next day if we could. The most dif­fi­cult time was being out­side when it was re­ally bad weather or when it was windy. Com­put­ers wouldn’t work be­cause they were too cold or the bat­tery would dis­ap­pear. Dur­ing the time we were stuck iron­i­cally, we had the best con­nec­tion be­cause we weren’t mov­ing.

So I un­der­stand you're a pretty ad­ven­tur­ous per­son, hav­ing not only you re­ported  live from Antarc­tica, but you also floated aboard a zero­gravity flight  with the Eu­ro­pean Space Agency, had your genes se­quenced, have been a sci­en­tific guinea­pig to test the ef­fects of the Atkins  diet, hung out with dare­devil botanists in the moun­tains of Lebanon. Do you have any plans for this week­end?

Alok Jha: I am ac­tu­ally not that ad­ven­tur­ous at all!  This ad­ven­ture in Antarc­tica is the most ad­ven­tur­ous thing I have done. Even that was rel­a­tively con­tained in it­self. If you ask any of my col­leagues or friends, I’m some­one who doesn’t like to leave cities, wifi con­nec­tion or good cof­fee very much. So what I’m going to do next? I’m prob­a­bly going to hang out in a li­brary to work on my next book..

Cafébabel: Can you tell us a bit more about your next book?

Alok Jha: It’s about water as a cul­tural ob­ject. It’s about how human be­ings have cre­ated this idea of what water is. Ob­vi­ously chem­i­cally it is very im­por­tant, it is the rea­son why life started. So I want to tell the story of how it plays an im­por­tant part in human so­ci­ety, in the mythol­ogy.

Cafébabel: The blurb of your first book says the reader, “Will dis­cover how Harry Pot­ter's  cloak of in­vis­i­bil­ity works.” Need­less to say I am very cu­ri­ous about that...

Alok Jha: That book was ba­si­cally writ­ten a few years ago, as a set of es­says about 35 bit of sci­ence that I find quite in­ter­est­ing, and pack­aged up in a way it is more ap­proach­able. And one of the chap­ters hap­pened to be about in­vis­i­bil­ity and the re­al­ity of in­vis­i­bil­ity. Ob­vi­ously we all know about Harry Pot­ter’s cloak of in­vis­i­bil­ity. I can’t tell you how it works be­cause that was ac­tu­ally magic. The thing I wrote about is called ‘meta­ma­te­r­ial’ which is a sort of nan­otech­nol­ogy ma­te­r­ial. Meta­ma­te­r­ial has fine struc­ture sur­faces that bounce light around in a way that if you put it in be­tween you and an ob­ject, the light bounces into your eyes, de­flect­ing it com­pletely so you don’t see the ob­ject. Peo­ple are al­ready using them to, for ex­am­ple, cover a fighter jet in such a way that radar can’t bounce of it and it be­comes in­vis­i­ble. They are get­ting to the point where you can start mak­ing in­vis­i­ble light. If I cover my­self with it now, you would see through me es­sen­tially.

Cafébabel: Any plans to go back on a ship any­time soon?

Alok Jha: If some­one of­fered me a cruise right now and I had noth­ing else to do, yeah I’d go for that! Why not? Some­where in­ter­est­ing, some­where warm maybe, where I don’t have to do so much work. I need a hol­i­day!