Sunday, April 6, 2014

The problem with popular science books

Most really are not about science.

It used to be claimed that distinguished scientists writing books for the general public would provoke the snobbish disdain of their colleagues. It was considered to be intellectual shallow to take ones research to the masses. However, all that changed with Stephen Hawking's bestseller A Brief History of Time. It made him a lot of money and a celebrity. After that many scientists got in on the act. Now there is a steady stream of popular science books.

I think scientists should write books for popular audiences. My problem is that I think in the end most really aren't about science.
There seem to be two common agendas of authors. Both are extremely ambitious and filled with hubris.

One agenda is that the topic of the authors research is THE big thing in science. It doesn't just revolutionise a particular specialised field of science but will revolutionise all of science. The author promotes their specialisation [chaos theory, string theory, complex adaptive systems, quantum information, self-organised criticality, systems biology, evolutionary biology, emergence, cosmology, …..] as THE most fundamental and important sub-discipline of science, because it has such profound implications for all of science.

The second agenda goes even further. The work of the author and her/his field is THE answer to the meaning and purpose of humanity and the universe. Only when we accept this will we truly understand why we are here, where we are going, and how to tackle the grand challenges facing humanity.

I illustrate the latter by giving quotes from the end of several highly acclaimed and influential popular science books. I have featured these quotes in earlier posts.
``Where then shall we find the source of truth and the moral inspiration for a really scientific socialist humanism? Only, we suggest, in the sources of science itself,..... it is the conclusion to which the search for authenticity necessarily leads. The ancient covenant is in pieces; man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immmensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. Neither his destiny nor his duty have been written down. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.''
Jacques MonodChance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modem Biology, trans. Austryn Wainhouse (New York: Knopf, 1971), p. 167
But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things which lifts human life a little above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.
Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (Basic Books, 1977), pages 154-155.
If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, .... Then we shall all ...[discuss] why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we would truly know the mind of God.
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

This post was stimulated by reading an excellent paper by Ian Hesketh about Big History where he discusses the whole genre of popular science writing. More on that later….

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