Pop-science literature: what is it and how is it shaping our future?
“A thrilling adventure story you will find yourself talking endlessly about with friends … it excited and thrilled us.”
This was the glowing praise from much-loved author Bill Bryson, talking enthusiastically last week about the latest book to win a prestigious award.
You would be forgiven for thinking he was waxing lyrical about the most recent offering from a big-name author such as Lee Child or J K Rowling.
But Bryson is chairman of the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize, and the non-fiction book that so impressed him, and his fellow judges, was a biography by Andrea Wulf of forgotten 18th-century German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt.
It might not sound like the most obvious or promising addition to your reading list, but Wulf’s brilliantly accessible The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World says everything about why the literature of science is in such rude health. As Bryson said when he announced the prize’s shortlist last month, he had encountered books as lyrical, vivid, useful and accessible as he has found in any genre.
He went so far as to warn readers that they are “shortchanging themselves” if they aren’t reading science books. Bryson should know: he won the prize himself in 2004 for A Short History of Nearly Everything, which made discussing particle physics seem like the most natural thing in the world.
Still, Wulf’s win did feel a little bit like a perfect storm. After all, the prize celebrates science writing aimed at a non-specialist audience – and Humboldt was a visionary who made science accessible more than two centuries ago. This was the man who explored South America and came back, as Wulf puts it, “with the idea that nature is a web of life and that earth is a living organism”.
At the award ceremony, physicist Brian Cox – perhaps the most popular scientist of the 21st century, thanks to his BBC documentaries – noted that while Humboldt may not be so well remembered today, he is very much of our time. “His work tackled many of today’s big issues, such as climate change and biodiversity loss and the interconnectedness of nature,” he said. “He was curious about everything and a superb communicator … his interdisciplinary approach puts paid to the ridiculous notion that science and the arts are separate entities.”
And when Cox talks about science, people listen. Although there is an inherent challenge in nudging science writing onto bestseller lists, his books make it – not least because they usually accompany his stunningly shot BBC television series, such as Wonders of the Universe. His Forces of Nature was published in June with the simple message that “the world is beautiful to look at, but it is even more beautiful to understand”.
Last week, Cox also published his first standalone book since 2011’s The Quantum Universe. Universal: A Guide to the Cosmos, is described as a book about how to think and how to look. And if anyone can make the theory of multiverses sound rock ’n’ roll, it is Cox: this is a man who will kick off a science-themed live tour tomorrow, performing in the same arenas as Red Hot Chili Peppers and Green Day.
So Cox has certainly played his part in bringing science writing into the mainstream. He is by no means the first, of course – Cox loves Cosmos by Carl Sagan, the American physicist’s look at the development of science and civilisation, which in the early 1980s, became the best-selling science book ever. You can draw a direct line from Sagan to Cox’s work 35 years later – some of the ideas may have changed, but the impetus remains the same: to make science exciting.
Sagan also wrote the introduction to one of the most famous science books.
Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was published in 1988 and has sold more than 10 million copies. As Hawking tells it, he was warned to avoid equations, because for every one he published that backed up his ideas about the Big Bang and black holes, he would lose half his audience. This suited the record-breaking theoretical physicist just fine – he didn’t care for equations much either.
Pop-science books didn’t suddenly appear in the 1980s, however. In the late 1720s, French intellectual Voltaire helped to hammer home the ideas of Isaac Newton with far more force in Letters on England than the scientist himself had managed.
Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, meanwhile, was one of the first books to use photographs to illustrate and explain its points.
Talking of Darwin, Richard Dawkins’s 1976 opus, The Selfish Gene, sold millions of copies as it updated – completed, even – many of the 19th-century naturalist’s propositions.
Given this impressive bibliography, perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise, then, when a popular science book strikes a chord with a mainstream audience.
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a huge hit in 2010 – much to the amazement of the author, given that it was ostensibly about a group of cancer cells. But because it also told the human story of a poor black tobacco worker from Baltimore, she managed to make an emotional connection with her readers. Similarly, Cox’s genuine, almost childlike enthusiasm for the wonders of the universe is infectious. And when Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene, he said he didn’t want to persuade people to understand the science theoretically – he wanted his readers to feel it in their gut with a visceral force. Whether we seem to be more interested in science books because we are in a fertile period of scientific thinking that mirrors, say, the Islamic Golden Age, is a moot point. What’s perhaps more certain is that scientists, writers and broadcasters who are evangelical about their subjects can transmit their enthusiasm to far larger networks of people more easily than ever before.
As Bryson says: “Science isn’t separate from our daily lives. It is our daily lives. It explains who we are, how we got here and where we are going. It is innately enchanting.”
Which is why when Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE, launched the UAE Year of Reading last December, the initiative was about much more than simply getting people to enjoy fiction. He described reading as “the basic skill for a new generation of scientists, intellectuals, researchers and innovators”.
Meanwhile, changes to the curriculum in Abu Dhabi schools aim to encourage teachers to persuade their pupils to pursue studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Anyone with a copy of Cox’s book or one of his TV shows on DVD could not fail to enthuse their young charges.
After all, children and young adults are naturally fascinated by space – which is why the continuing UAE space programme is so crucial not just from a business point of view, but also for the development of a knowledge-based economy.
Maybe, too, these pupils will be encouraged enough to be the popular science writers of the next generation. As Cox, Hawking, Sagan, Bryson and now Wulf prove, bestselling science literature can be fun to write – and incredibly exciting to read.
Published: September 27, 2016 04:00 AM