Monday, 22 March 2010

Popular science need not be patronising

I’ve read a lot of “popular science” books.  Put me in a book shop and I’ll be headed straight for the section filled with books called “Shrödinger’s Something” and have a picture of a cat on the front.  (*)

Time – and a lot of reading – has lead me to believe that many authors mistake the readers of popular science books for idiots and seem to think that making the science simple involves aiming for a simple readership.  To think that way is folly – most people pick up a book on quantum theory or relativity because they want to understand it – not because they want to read tabloid-style rantings about time travel and clocks slowing down in fast planes.  I’ve got a particular book in mind here which was so dire I was screaming at the pages during the last chapter…

The problem with most popular science books – and many science documentaries on TV – is that they aren’t created by people who understand the science.  If you want an accessible depiction of a scientific concept then find a scientist who understands and let them explain it to the target audience – whatever you do, don’t find some actor from Hollyoaks and give them a script to read out.

Fortunately, Brian Cox has appeared as our saviour in the mire of dull science writing and presenting.

I’m just about to finish reading Why E=mc² and it’s a fantastic book.  And even though we’re only halfway through “Wonders of the Solar System” it’s already astounded me with both the imagery and the presentation.

Let me illustrate my point with an example.  A week ago Saturn’s rings were the focus of “Wonders Of The Solar System” and in particular the gaps which appear in the rings.  Mention was made that moons are responsible for the gaps.  And that’s where most documentaries would’ve stopped.  Not this one.

It was a joy to hear orbital resonance being explained.   There was no hand-waving here, but an actual explanation of how moons outside the ring system can create gaps inside the ring system because of resonances between their orbital period and the orbital period of the particles which make up the rings.  Proof that it is possible to present the truth of science without making it either inaccessible or patronising.

I can recommend the book for exactly the same reason.  The maths is presented and a derivation of “E=mc²” is given in the book.(**) Even if you already understand Special Relativity, the Standard Model and the idea of spacetime curvature, you will still enjoy reading this book.  Trust me. You will.  Oh and watch “Wonders of the Solar System” on Sunday Evenings – you won’t be disappointed!"

* Brian Cox’s book does have a picture of a cat on the front but Schrödinger is not mentioned in the title.

** OK, it’s a bit of an approximate derivation but if you have a maths background you have enough information in the book to make it rigorous…

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