Jobs Report: Quanta Magazine’s Thomas Lin Spends His Days ‘Illuminating Science’

Thomas Lin

Thomas Lin in Quanta Magazine’s Flatiron office. Photo credit: Thomas Lin

“What do you do?” The question is a staple of parties and chance encounters, but the brief answer given in response seldom provides real insight into what people actually do every day. Welcome back to our Jobs Report, where when we ask people what they do, we actually mean it.

Three years ago, Thomas Lin left the the science desk of The New York Times to become the founding editor of Quanta Magazine, an online outlet that covers hard science and math. Quanta, whose mission is to “enhance public understanding of research developments in mathematics and the physical and life sciences,” is an editorially independent nonprofit publication funded by The Simons Foundation, the organization created by the publicity-shy billionaire mathematician and hedge-fund founder James Simons to promote scientific research.

Mr. Lin spoke to us over the phone from Quanta’s Flatiron office on a recent Wednesday evening. He walked us through a typical day running a publication that prides itself on intellectually rigorous and engaging stories about developments in fields normally left to scholarly journals.

I live on the Upper East Side, so I start my day there. We had a baby less than a month ago. This morning I got up and fed our newborn and changed him, and it takes about an hour to do that. This is our second child, so we’ve been through the drill before. Even as I’m feeding the baby, I’m on my phone getting Slack messages from our news assistant, who sent me the latest edit of our podcast episode for the week. So I gave that a quick listen and approved that. She also sent me some social media posts to review and look over.

I take the 6 train to work. It’s very hit or miss, so it took a while. It can be crowded, the service can be slow, and sometimes they skip your stop, which is what they did this morning. So I had to walk from Union Square.

Our weekly editorial meetings are on Wednesday mornings at 11, so when I got in I started preparing for that because I wanted to lay out a plan for a big series we are launching this fall. It took about an hour at the meeting to talk about that, then we spent some time talking about our upcoming stories. We currently have six people, including myself, on staff, although we use a bunch of freelancers.

Our reporters have a good idea of the kinds of stories we’re interested in. They are plugged into their area of the scientific community, so they’re often hearing about stuff even before it gets published. The story process usually takes a while, both because of the story length and because they take a lot of reporting because the subject matter tends to be really dense and technical. It’s very difficult to explain abstract concepts well. We fact check all our pieces because accuracy is really important for Quanta. One of the things we see out there is a lot of sort of sensational science news that isn’t really grounded in accurate reporting. Most stories take about a month to do.

Around 1:00, I ordered lunch from Terri, a vegetarian restaurant near our office. I got a superfood salad. I don’t know if superfood is even a real thing, but it sounds good, I guess. I brought that back to my office and signed off on some expenses and looked at analytics while I was eating. I spent a little bit of time reviewing our redesign matrix. We are in the very early stages of planning a major site redesign, so we’re talking to these great design firms and deciding which one to go with.

Then I had my weekly meeting with our news assistant. I try to meet with every team member individually each week. Everybody is very invested and hopefully feels like they are making an impact in the world.

I’m on Slack throughout the day. It’s a great tool, but it’s also another thing to have to constantly be aware of and on top of. There are a lot of things I need to respond to and manage, but I also need to edit stories. I tend to do that when most people have gone home for the day, or I’ll do it at home after the kids have gone to bed.

We obviously have a very different business model. We are not commercial, we are nonprofit. We’re part of a foundation, but we’re editorially independent. So we make all of our own decisions, but it’s important that we cover science accurately because that’s what the foundation cares about. If we were making a lot of mistakes and not doing a good job covering science, or if we weren’t reaching people or there wasn’t a perceived value, then it would be harder to justify funding this. But we’re showing very good growth and have been growing a very loyal audience base, because it turns out there are a lot of people who want to know what’s happening in these fields.

Our articles are also syndicated by more mainstream outlets like Wired, Scientific American and The Atlantic. When we first started, we would go to our syndicate partners to see if they wanted to run our stories, but now they come to us. I often get more than one request for the same story, but we do an exclusive arrangement so our partners will get a story exclusively for the first month.

One of our first hits, interestingly enough, was one of our more complicated pieces in terms of subject matter. It was really abstract and esoteric. It was about this geometric object that a physicist came up with to simplify calculations of particle interactions but the deep implication if the theory works the way they hope it will was that it could also potentially be a way that physicists could show how space-time is an emergent phenomenon and not a fundamental reality, if that makes sense. That kind of blew people’s mind. That story went wild and was so widely shared that it ended up in Conan O’Brien’s monologue. Of course, he made a joke about marijuana with it, but still.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Jobs Report: Quanta Magazine’s Thomas Lin Spends His Days ‘Illuminating Science’