Scholar proves that you can have fun with science

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 October, 2009, 12:00am
 

Dr Ji Xiaohua is founder and general manager of Songshuhui, a non-governmental scientific community on the mainland. Many of its members hold PhDs in various fields of natural science. They write interesting scientific stories with which to entertain themselves and the public. Their website, songshuhui.net, receives more than 80,000 visits a day.

You are a popular and prolific writer. Does having a PhD degree help in writing stories?

Totally, if what you mean is that good writers are invariably somewhat insane: a PhD is an abbreviation for 'permanent head damage', so in terms of that, I have benefited enormously. Writing a PhD thesis as deep and thorough as the one that I submitted to Fudan University in 2006 could cause a massive destruction of brain cells. I survived it, though, thanks to my parents, who gave me a large brain.

The real hurt came after the submission - I could not help counting the number of people in this world who would read it. In the best-case scenario, I figured three. That was totally unfair considering the number of hours that I had contributed to this single work.

The thesis contains some fresh ideas. But they were presented in such a dry and hard format that even an experienced scholar would probably crack a tooth or two to get the nut out of the shell. By the way, that's why we call ourselves songshu (squirrel), because our job is to help ordinary readers get the nut of science subjects out of the shell of mathematical equations and academic jargon.

I was really hurt, you know, as I thought about the inevitable fate of my thesis drifting into oblivion. Evidence of the injury was that a voice at the back of my head said I should be a writer rather than a scientist.

That was a crazy idea indeed. Did you consult a psychiatrist?

Have I told you that my field is neuroscience? No, I have not consulted a psychiatrist. Not because I don't need one - PhD candidates in neuroscience claimed the second highest suicide rate on campus, second only to philosophy - but for the fact that they refused to treat us because we know more than they do. OK, don't put that in your notes; I just made that up.

What really happened was that I have loved literature since childhood. I write poems. No one read them because they never left my drawer. When I got into graduate school, however, the urge to write became stronger. One day I translated one of my academic papers into an article that could entertain a kindergarten child - or at least I hoped so - and just for fun, I submitted it to a dozen magazine editors. All of them rejected it, of course. Then I wrote and sent another piece. A magazine paid for it. That was the turning point.

So you decided to make writing a lifetime career after graduation?

No, I went to work in a government-funded research institute instead. It seemed to be a dream workplace for a fresh graduate: big office, stable income, good benefits and lots of parking space. But to me it was a grind house. I worked like a slave.

After I submitted my resignation, I told my parents. They asked me how I was going to make a living. I said I would write. They couldn't understand it. To them, the income of a writer was less reliable than that of a bagger [at a supermarket].

You are famous now. Are you rich, too?

Science writing is not the most lucrative field in the business. A few years ago, an established science writer could make only 70 yuan (HK$80) for 1,000 characters. Now, after some serious bargaining, we squirrels can get more than 300 yuan. It would not be enough to buy a house but good enough to give our members some material incentives to keep producing more and better writing.

What do you do besides writing and selling your work?

I used to be a very shy person. Well, all writers are, aren't they? But the growth of Songshuhui has forced me to commit myself to many public activities. I've become a frequent guest of scientific programmes on television, organised seminars for science fans and even held lectures for inexperienced but eager squirrels about creative scientific writing.

Since its establishment last year, Songshuhui has been an immediate hit. Why is it so popular?

Science has long been treated as a serious subject in China. China was beaten to the edge of hell by Western powers because we didn't know much about science and technology. From kindergarten, we have been told that science is a weapon, rather than a toy, that should be used to conquer nature as well as our enemies. So when people talk about science, they are damn serious. Now Chinese are feeling more secure and confident about themselves. It's time to take science less seriously and have more fun.

When Chinese students have fun, they'll be more creative. Maybe the first Chinese who gets a Nobel Prize in natural science is chewing one of the nuts that have been cracked by our squirrels.

Ji Xiaohua spoke to Stephen Chen

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