Journalism, via code, music, physics—and 9/11

Around the age of eleven, in the late 1990s, I had taught myself to code. I had no benchmark, curriculum, or people around me doing it, so I just kept going. I created an ever-expanding personal website, wrote programs in C++ and Pascal, including a BPM counter for musicians and DJs, as well as basic word processors and browsers. I also created a popular music website, in PHP and MySQL, unwittingly marrying interests in journalism, programming, music, and entrepreneurship. In the same way I relentlessly called editors now, I relentlessly called record company press offices then, eagerly awaiting promotional copies of pre-release CDs. My website—replete with reviews, forums, live listings and, even in those dialup days, streaming audio and video—was listed by MTV as one of the then nascent web’s top twenty music news sources—and it all came from my bedroom.

Sadly, I didn’t realize the value of programming, or of the website itself, in those dotcom boom years. Had I known, I wouldn’t have later taken those bar jobs for eight dollars an hour; rather I’d have looked into monetizing or selling the site, or at least taken programming jobs paying far more. My mom and I did look into what we could do with the site, and even sat down with lawyers in Slough and incorporated a company, but we were out of our depth.

Information Technology classes at school involved little more than using Microsoft Office to print text, images, and clipart. One day a teacher printed off thirty identical sheets of paper, with lettering in different sizes and colors. Everyone received a copy and the task was to open Microsoft Word and copy it. Not only was the task well below the ability of everyone in that room, it entirely went against the purpose of computing. This wasn’t Silicon Valley.

The news stories on my music site were essentially rewritten press releases or pick-ups from other outlets rather than hard investigation or on-the-ground reporting. “U2 confirm new single.” “Michael Jackson to re-release HIStory.” “Eminem To Begin Shooting Film Next Month.” The reviews were somewhat more creative but I got bored and let it go after a couple of years, around the age of fourteen in 2001. Nearly twenty years later, when I would leave the journalism industry, few news outlets would be close to harnessing the value of the internet and computers even to the extent I had done as a teenager. I would be proud of my achievements but also frustrated that the field I’d chosen was decades behind what could be achieved.

At the time of the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I began to devour more serious journalism from TIME magazine, CNN, and the BBC. With access to the internet, I learned the rules of grammar—the em-dash, the Oxford comma, and the semicolon; and I dreamt of buying an SLR camera.

I had no interests in early high school other than messing around with friends. After an inattentive first few years, including being in bottom set math and wanting to quit as soon as possible to become a music producer, I settled down and, thanks to the passion of a couple of maverick science teachers, Anthony Branfield and David Thomas, became interested in math and physics. I loved its rebelliousness, rigor, and deep quest for reality and truth. At the last minute, I decided to apply to study Natural Sciences, with a focus on physics, at Cambridge, one of the world’s most prestigious universities, and Branfield—who, with endearment, said I was a “pain in the arse” to teach—helped me put together an application over the weekend before the deadline. In the final line of his reference, he quoted Thomas: “This guy will make a valuable contribution to the world.” I was taken aback by their enthusiasm and that they were batting for me outside the school’s normal processes; I learned that it’s people going the extra mile, and ignoring the rules, that can really change someone’s world for the better.

To our great surprise, and my mom’s great joy, I got in and Cambridge was wonderful in many ways. I studied at King’s College, founded in the fifteenth century by King Henry VI. I lived within its ornate grounds, opposite King’s College Chapel, apparently one of the greatest examples of English Gothic architecture. I had loved learning science through its history and now I was walking the same streets as Stephen Hawking, Bertrand Russel, and Srinivasa Ramanujan. The basement computing room at King’s was named after alumnus Alan Turing. In the Cavendish physics lab, set up by James Clerk Maxwell, I saw J.J. Thomson’s cathode ray tube, in which he discovered the electron. In the Sedgewick geology building, I saw Charles Darwin’s notebooks. And in Trinity’s Wren library, I saw Isaac Newton’s very own annotated copy of the Principia Mathematica

I relished all that but I was also eighteen years old and, ultimately, wanted more from university life than this. I wanted the big city, night clubs, a vibrancy and vitality that Cambridge couldn’t offer. While Cambridge had made some progress in admitting people who didn’t come from elite backgrounds, more than forty per cent of British-educated students had gone to private schools that year. I was pleased for the window into this new world—one of my closest friends at Cambridge had studied at one of Britain’s most celebrated private schools, located in the precincts of Westminster Abbey—but, ultimately, this wasn’t the environment in which I wanted to spend my late teenage years. So, I switched to Manchester, a gritty but trendy northern English city, home to the music scene I so enjoyed, a world-class physics department—including Fred Loebinger, a charismatic admissions tutor who would deliver deeply engaging particle physics lectures—and an extremely vibrant and eclectic student population.

And given I was so much happier at Manchester than at Cambridge, I went deeper into physics—and stayed on to do a Master’s. I would later connect the dots between physics and journalism and some of their shared traits. Both are built on curiosity and attempt to explain the world through observation and logic—without bias or bowing to authority. But only one of them allows for international adventure.