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Mon 16 September 2019
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I never used to care much for science.

I felt it was cold and angular, a lifeless collation of tedious numbers and facts. A tomb for utilitarian pragmatists. It didn’t feel connected to life, passion, love, risk: all the things that make living a rich human experience. Science was for clever, academic, disconnected people, not me.

Realising the myriad of ways that science is intimately connected with human life took me some time. It dawned on me slowly as I experienced homelessness, Himalayan mountaineering, war zones, Delhi slums, gender transitioning and sex work.

The evidence was there before me as I witnessed glaciers retreating, water supplies becoming contaminated, and wars over resources ignite. I struggled to understand as my body changed and developments in drugs to treat sexually transmitted diseases changed the vulnerable communities I inhabited. The more experiences I had, the more I realised it is the interface, interplay and often chaotic dissonance between unpredictable, emotive humanity and reliable, unfeeling data that is often most fascinating and important in science.

So, why listen to me, or trust my words about science?

Far too many of the world’s ills come from people being led, instead of wandering their own intellectual paths.

In the dusts of India, I joyfully frittered most of my twenties, lost in back alleys of excrement and perfume, living in communities where intense suffering and grotesque wealth sit side by side, entangled. The majority of my time was spent in the mountainous troubled jewel that is Jammu and Kashmir, though I lived in the slums of Narela, North Delhi for a while, working in a hospital that broke my heart.

Eventually, I decided to return to Scotland, broke, unemployed and unqualified and began the curious and tortuous process of gender transitioning. Early transition experiences included being spat on in supermarkets, shouted at on the streets, continually laughed and smirked at, threatened with violence, and losing my minimum wage job. Friends vanished and family support evaporated. I felt sad and desperate. I was socially isolated and my life was difficult to say the least.

I became a sex worker in Edinburgh and began studying earth science part time with the Open University, gaining a first class degree with honours. My final year project was on glacial lake outburst flooding in the Bhutanese Himalayas. My final BSc modules overlapped with an MSc investigating atmospheric carbon dioxide loss caused by the erosion of Himalayan rocks.

This MSc was never completed, as half way through it the UK Space Agency offered me a PhD investigating how the rocky crust of Mars captures carbon dioxide to form the mineral carbonate and assess the role of this mechanism in the loss of the early Mars atmosphere. Such mineral carbon capture also has relevance on Earth, and could potentially be deployed artificially as a geoengineering technique to tackle climate change. I was selected in the top 10 science writers by the Oxbridge biotech roundtable in 2014, later becoming a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, and I currently sit on the European Association of Geochemistry’s science communication committee.

Doing a PhD taught me that I am not an academic. The bawdy, raucous but mostly empty proclamations of equality and diversity in academia ring hollow. Real diversity is usually met with uncomfortable reactions at best, and outright hostility at worst. Wealth and privilege, viciousness and sycophancy are the keys to success. The myriad of subtle ways that modern academia fails minorities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds can wait for a later article. I gained my doctorate in much the same way as a tired walker gains a cloudy wet summit, more through stubbornness and the personal need for completion than through any connection to joy or learning.

It is the chaotic dissonance between unpredictable, emotive humanity and reliable, unfeeling data that is often most fascinating and important in science.

After a brief spell lecturing astrobiology at St Andrews University I have returned to sex work and help run a small sex worker support charity in Glasgow called Umbrella Lane. I am learning massage, trying to write, and co-direct a small science film company called Wild Orbit Films.

Perhaps I sound bitter about academia. Perhaps I am bitter. Disappointed might be a better term. I love science yet despise academia.

During my PhD I created Science Hooker, which primarily exists on Twitter and if you are not on Twitter, I am a more than worthwhile reason to join. I try to share the important science stories that are not trending on the mainstream media, or if they are, then I try to explore unconsidered aspects of them. The hidden gems and quiet discoveries. Further, I try to connect my followers with the raw data as much as possible, linking to the original science journal articles and

data sets. Although I might sometimes give my opinion, the emphasis is always on you, the reader, to make up you own mind, based on the available data.

This column will follow these ideals, resisting leading you on any rigid narrative, and instead providing the resources for you to construct or possibly amend your own understanding and narrative. Far too many of the world’s ills come from people being led, instead of wandering their own intellectual paths. On a given science topic, I seek to be a map and never a guidebook, a manifest and never a manifesto. I am a feral, anarchic creature at heart and have no interest in yoking a reader’s mind to a specific idea, politics or viewpoint.

This column is an experiment, and your thoughts are not unimportant to me. Engage, chat to me, leave comments, tell me I’m wrong, say I’m wonderful (I’m shallow and such things go a long way), let me know what works and what does not.

Yours,

Adi

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