Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Different approaches to popular science writing

Since I am working on a Very Short Introduction (VSI) to condensed matter physics I am looking at a lot of writing about science for popular audiences. I have noticed several distinct approaches that different authors take. They all have strengths and weaknesses.

The story of discoveries and the associated scientists is told. A beautiful example is A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.
When done well this approach has many positives. Stories can be fun and easy to read, particularly when they involve quirky personalities, serendipity, and fascinating anecdotes. Furthermore, this shows how hard and messy real science is, and that science is a verb, not just a noun. On the other hand, it can be a bit challenging for readers as they have to understand not just the successes but also why certain theories, experiments, and interpretations were wrong along the way.  Many writers also seem eager to burden readers will all sorts of historical background details about scientists, their families, and their local context. Sometimes these details are interesting. Other times they seem just boring fluff. Generally, most agree that one does not learn and understand a scientific subject best by learning its history. So why take this approach in popular writing?

Literary pleasure
People read novels and watch movies for pleasure. The goal is not necessarily to learn something (or a lot). I would put Brian Cox's writing and documentaries in this category. That is not a criticism. Rather than provide a lot of information I think the goal is more to induce awe, wonder, curiosity, and enjoyment.

Condensed textbook
Take an introductory text and cover all the same topics in the same order. Just cut out technical details and jargon. Lots of analogies are used to explain concepts. The obvious strength is the reader gets a good overview of the subject. The weakness is that this can be boring, involve defining a lot of terminology, and is actually too hard for the reader. One scary consequence is that some readers actually think they now actually understand the subject.

This comes in several forms. One is that the theory or topic of interest (whether complexity, quantum information, self-organised criticality, sociobiology, ....) is THE answer. It explains everything. The second form of hype is technological: this science is going to lead a new technology that will change the world. Generally, this fits the genre of ``science as salvation''.

An example is Laughlin's A Different Universe. A challenge is that this requires readers to like learning new concepts and have an ability to think abstractly.

Except for hype, I think all of these approaches have their merits. Ideally, one would like to incorporate elements of all of them.

What do you think? Are there other approaches?