Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

From science writing to religion and back again

by Andre on 27 July 2005

This week’s Nature has an article about the difficulties of breaking into popular science writing which are partly due to increased offer and, at least in the case of physics, decreased demand (annual revenues from popular physics books dropped by over a third in Britain between 2001 and 2004). I’ve been a big fan of science popularizations for a while and I can understand this cooling of the market. You can only be told that quantum mechanics is wacky so many times before you either want something with a bit more substance or lose interest in the subject entirely.

I was happy though that the article reminded me of something I’ve thought about before: writing children’s books. I’ve always thought that would be interesting and I think I would get a lot of satisfaction out of writing a good one. According to the article, science books account for 12% of the juvenile market in Britain* so people might even read it.

As typically happens to me when I get a new idea, or am reminded of an old one, I want to drop what I’m doing to pursue it for a while. In this case I thought about children’s books I might like to write. Perhaps something not just about facts with statements like “scientists call these compounds hallucinogens,” but instead about how people figure things out. Maybe it could be called something like “How do we know?”.

Since that sounds like a pretty obvious title I thought I should google it to see how many books had already been published with that title. Of the first ten pages that were returned, I was initially surprised to find that four of them were religious – things like “How do we know the Bible is true”, “leading teens closer to Christ”, and a site about creationism. I naively assumed that we knew things from observation and experiments, but of course that’s not true for most people.

Which brings me back to science popularizations. I think there are at least two good reasons that scientists should continue to think about popularization. 1) Self interest: If you want the public to continue to support your esoteric research you need to share your excitement with them and show them how interesting it is. 2) Social interest: People need to make decisions about policy based on science all the time (stem cells, global warming, and genetically modified organisms to name a few) and it’s up to scientists to help them make informed decisions.

Both of these goals are served by writing about current and future results to keep scientific excitement and literacy as high as possible. But they are also served by well done books about old ideas. Part of the reason is what I started this post with. I may be tired of hearing superficial accounts of quantum weirdness, but the first time one is exposed to the idea that this wacky theory actually describes our universe is truly exhilarating. That’s why I’m glad that people like Brian Greene are still writing books like The Fabric of the Cosmos even though I haven’t read it and probably never will.

*That’s more than the percentage of books sold on sports!

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