What role do popular science books play? If done right, they cultivate interest in science among everyday people. Sometimes, they spur readers to become scientists themselves. Too often, academic pursuits are locked away in ivory towers. Popular science books break such barriers, helping experts and non-experts communicate with each other.
Filling Space spoke with Andrew May, an author of numerous popular science books. Two of his recent books are Destination Mars, about the history of human fascination with the Red Planet, and Cosmic Impact, about the threat to Earth posed by asteroids and comets. We asked him about his writing process and the role of popular science books in society.
When writing books – Destination Mars or Cosmic Impact, for instance – how do you go about learning what can be very complex subject matter?
Before I took up writing, I spent 30 years as a professional scientist, initially in an academic environment and then for various public and private sector employers. I didn’t work in the specific specialist areas covered in those books, but in other areas of astrophysics and aerospace technology – close enough, anyway, to give me some kind of “insider knowledge” of the subject.
I’m really thinking about broad-brush things here, like the way physicists and engineers set about tackling a problem – which can sometimes seem counter-intuitive to the outsider – and the jargon and mathematical tools they use, which are even more obscure. But once you know how to navigate your way through those, extracting the essentials – and ignoring the inessentials – of a new piece of research is a lot easier.
When it comes to researching scientific developments, as with any other subject, the internet has made the writer’s task much quicker and simpler. As well as the standard Google search engine, there’s something called Google Scholar, which searches through academic journals and conference proceedings for you. It not only digs out all the papers on the subject you’re interested in, but it also tells you how often, and where, each paper has been cited by other scientists. That’s particularly useful in areas you’re less familiar with, because it helps to separate sound, reputable research from what may be flakier stuff.
How do you make sure that you write in a way that is accessible to your audiences?
Actually this is where it helps not to be too much of an expert in the subject you’re writing about! I do book reviews on physics and astronomy topics for a magazine and a website, and quite often I get sent books that have been written by a retired professor on his specialist subject, supposedly aimed at general readers. These people almost always claim that “no specialized knowledge is assumed” – and immediately assume the same level of knowledge as one of their first-year university students. As comical as that sounds, it’s an easy trap to fall into for anyone who’s spent their career in academia.
I don’t really have that problem, because I’ve spent a lot of time working in teams alongside non-scientists. At one time, for example, I was a scientific advisor “embedded” in a group of air force pilots – so I’m talking about intelligent, highly competent people, who I perhaps feel slightly inferior to, and certainly wouldn’t dream of talking down to. But they don’t think the same way as scientists, so you have to adjust the way you express yourself to get an idea across. I think that’s a pretty good model for popular science writing, too (the bit about not talking down, I mean).
Another good thing with those two books, Destination Mars and Cosmic Impact, is that they benefited enormously from the comments and suggestions of two editors – one an experienced popular science writer who understands the audience very well, and the other a non-scientist who is a full-time editor on a whole range of subjects. Between them they spotted quite a few places where I was being needlessly sciencey or pedantic!
What role do you think the popular science genre plays in society?
Well, the most important thing it can do is create excitement and enthusiasm for science – especially if it catches people young enough that they’re inspired to follow a scientific career. In more general terms, it’s about increasing awareness of the way science works, the sort of issues it can address, what it’s achieved so far, and what it can achieve in future. That’s particularly important for the type of scientific research that’s heavily reliant on taxpayer funding, because people need to know they’re getting value for money.
I’m happy to admit that my own books are read by a relatively small number of people who are, for the most part, already fans of the popular science genre. Breaking out into the huge audience beyond that is a much harder task, requiring enormous talent and energy, and I’m totally in awe of the handful of people who’ve managed to pull it off. Going back to when I was in school, I’m thinking about Patrick Moore and Carl Sagan, who had a lot to do with me going on to do a PhD in astrophysics. These days there are people like Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson – who are even more impressive in the way they can convey sophisticated scientific ideas in such an effortlessly accessible way. If more young people are going into science as a result of that, it can only be a good thing.