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Once a physicist: Paul Danahar

Paul Danahar
Journalist Paul Danahar is the BBC's Americas bureaux chief in Washington, DC. He was previously the BBC's Middle East bureau chief between 2010 and 2013

  
What sparked your interest in physics? Mainly, I guess it was because I had a good physics teacher at school – someone who could turn science fiction into something more tangible that could be studied at a deeper level. I liked English, too, and I remember my English teacher telling me I was nuts for studying science at university. I guess you could argue that they were right, because I became a journalist. But I was just so fascinated by the concepts involved in physics.

How did you get into journalism? I studied physics at the University of Hull, and in our second year we had to write a long essay about some aspect of physics, in a form that was accessible to people who weren't physicists. I did mine on relativity, and suddenly I realized that I liked writing about physics and explaining it to people. And I was good at it – in fact, I was better at doing that than I was at sitting down and doing the original thinking myself. So I started getting involved in the university newspaper and radio station, and by the time I'd got to the end of my time at university, I'd decided that I wanted to be a science journalist. But it was a difficult transition, because when I went for interviews in radio, people would say, "You've got a physics degree – why aren't you applying to our engineering department?" Eventually, though, I was interviewed for a job at a radio station in Hull by a stand-in station manager who had actually dropped out of a physics degree, and he gave me a chance.

Was your physics background useful once you got started? Yes, it's helped me on many levels. Broadcasting involves quite a lot of technology, and that didn't scare me in the way that it scared a lot of other journalists. After I started working for the BBC, they sent me out into the field as a producer, which means you need to be able to write and broadcast, but you also need to be able to do some of the production tasks. And I would find myself going to places in war zones or disaster zones, where I'd be sleeping in a burned out house or whatever, and I'd have to worry about how I was going to get the story back to London, how I was going to build infrastructure around us so that we could operate. I think my science training helped me do that. It made problems something to be solved rather than something to avoid approaching because you didn't know what the answers were.

Did you ever worry about your safety? I worry more about it now that I have kids, but to be honest with you, none of us who go into war zones ever believe anything bad is going to happen to us, because otherwise we wouldn't do it. We're not stupid – we just don't think we're going to come a cropper. But in 2011, covering the war in Libya, there were three times when I was very, very close to being killed. We had an artillery round land quite close to us, but it didn't go off; if it had, it would have killed us all. Then a sniper took a shot at me in Tripoli and it just whizzed past – actually, cracked past my head; the sound is how you know how close it's come. And on the day that Muammar Gaddafi's compound fell, a guy stopped me to give me some water, and at first I said no, but he insisted, and then just around the corner there was a big burst of fire. If the guy hadn't stopped me, it would have hit me. I became very conscious of the risks at that stage, and when I was going out again to Libya later that year, my six-year-old boy said, "Are you going to die this time?" That made me rethink where I needed to go next, and it's partly why I'm in Washington now. I still have the appetite for the risky stuff, but my kids need more stability in their home life – they need to know that when I say I'm going to take them to football practice on Saturday, I'm actually going to be there. And it's fun being here in Washington, because I've been at the sharp end of American foreign policy for a long while, so seeing how it all works is intellectually very stimulating.

Any advice for today's students? One thing that's quite important (and one of the mistakes that I think I made) is that you should study a subject you're good at rather than necessarily the one that interests you most. You don't have to pick a subject that is "easy", but if it's something that you find easy, that means you will be successful in your degree and then you'll be able to use that to go off and do other stuff. I would also encourage people to find a way to study a language properly. Physics offers you a wide view of the world, but it doesn't always give you the kind of skills you need out there, and languages are incredibly important. Finally, in terms of career advice, I would say to physics students: you've not pigeonholed yourself at the age of 21. All you've done is give yourself a good foundation in how the world works.