Thursday, September 22, 2011

Science Reading

The results of the Wellcome Trust’s inaugural Science Writing Prize are due to be announced on October 12th. In the run up to this, you may have come across the series of blog posts on our sister site at the Wellcome Trust Blog, by various science writers discussing their experience of writing about science. But what about the readers, what do they get out of reading about science? In fact popular science writing has been something of a publishing success story. As a genre it is established enough to have its own ‘classics’, such as The Selfish Gene (still in print after 30 years) and A Brief History of Time, which remained in the best sellers lists for four and a half years and sold over 9 million copies. There may be many reasons why people like reading about science, here are some suggestions that chimed with my experience.

The wow factor
The natural world is amazing. From the vast scale to the infinitesimal details, there are things that delight, things that horrify, and things that are so fantastical you might find them implausible in a work of fiction. It’s great to get that sense of wonder when you discover that an octopus can camouflage itself in 3D!

Of course it’s not just the high minded stuff that fascinates, let’s be honest. We’re equally curious about the compelling mix of sex and violence that comprises the mating habits of the marsupial mole. As well as the ‘wow’ factor, the ‘eww’ factor has a certain appeal.

Admittedly, the ‘wow’ factor has an even stronger appeal in broadcast media, especially in visually stunning fields such as astronomy and natural history, and enthusiasm is infectious, so finding out these things in the company of Carl Sagan (for younger audiences, replace with Brian Cox, who may be part of the wow factor for some) or David Attenborough adds to the enjoyment. But I’ve also had that sense of wonder from a book about the astonishing workings of the human brain.

Nerd appeal
People like to know stuff, I’m not talking about bald facts, or the proverbial train spotters’ data, I mean the sort of satisfaction that comes with understanding how something works or what is happening in the world around you, or in your body. For many of us this sort of understanding enhances our everyday experience of life. And this is where the popular science book comes into its own. As science writer Jon Turney said: “books lend themselves to extended… many layered arguments.” Even if we don’t know the actual science and mathematics, a skilful science writer can, enable us to appreciate the nature of something complex or abstruse such as quantum physics or genetics. Here’s Steve Jones talking about the relationship between genetics and heredity in The Language of Genes:

“Mitochondria are small energy producing structures in the cell. Each has its own piece of DNA, a closed structure of about sixteen thousand DNA bases, quite distinct from that in the cell nucleus. Eggs are full of mitochondria but those in sperm are killed off when they enter the egg. As a result such genes are inherited almost exclusively through females…. Every family, every nation and every continent can trace descent from its mitochondrial Eve, a woman (needless to say one of many alive at the same time) upon whom all their female lineages converge.”

Poetic inspiration
As anyone who has had to use a science textbook will know, simply describing the workings of science can be very dull, it takes a certain talent not just to bring them to life, but to inspire others with the same passion for your subject. The thing that brings together the wonder and the knowledge is the quality of the writing, for example the creative use of metaphor and analogy are often key to explanations of complex concepts and processes. Here is Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow explaining why it’s so difficult to locate a cricket in the grass from its chirping:

“Whereas our barometer ears have a membrane stretched over a confined space, insect weathervane ears have either a hair, or a membrane stretched over a chamber with a hole…. Directionality is built into insects’ method of detecting sound. Barometers aren’t like that. A rise in pressure is just a rise in pressure, and it doesn’t matter from which direction the added molecules come. We vertebrates therefore, with our barometer ears, have to calculate the direction of sound by comparing the reports of the two ears…. Cricket song is cunningly pitched and timed so as to be hard for vertebrate ears to locate but easy for female crickets, with their weathervane ears, to home in upon.”

The title of Dawkins’ book is a response to the poet John Keats’ lament that Isaac Newton destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by describing it’s structure. Many readers of popular science books might beg to differ.

Popular Science in the Wellcome Library
If you’re new to the popular science genre, there’s a wealth of material in our Collections, including contemporary and historical books, biographies, fiction and even graphic novels. You can find a comprehensive introduction in our guide to popular science. If you’re looking for recommendations, the guide also contains a list of book prizes and book clubs that offer you a choice of the best and the latest in popular science writing.

Image: A convalescent young woman reading. Gouache painting by David Bles, ca.1845. From
Wellcome Images, image number V0048055.

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