Evolution, quantum mechanics, and consciousness, but the greatest of these is consciousness. So goes the creed of the modern non- fiction publisher. The booksellers have done very well with science topics lately, but consciousness is now running away from the field. Every week seems to bring yet another solution to the mind-brain problem, as the latest volume pinpoints those bits of brain supposedly responsible for our conscious feelings. The combination of hard neural science with the mysteries of subjective experience seems irresistible to readers.
When the popular-science boom first started, many literary commentators suggested it owed more to ostentation than education. But the market has proved them wrong. Ever since Copernicus, modern science has been overturning our preconceptions about our place in the universe. Small wonder that the contemporary common reader wants to engage with any scientific breakthroughs that promise to illuminate the human condition.
If there is anything suspect in the popular-science business, it lies on the side of supply rather than demand. Lay readers may be hungry for information, but the writers do not always provide it. It's no easy task to distil complex technical issues into everyday terms. StephenHawking's publisher told him that every equation in A Brief History of Time would halve his readership, and so Hawking took them all out - except e = mc2.
Yet the best science writers, like Richard Dawkins or Roger Penrose, do not shy away from technicalities. Instead, they use diagrams,metaphors and the sheer power of intellect to make their meaning clear. It is no accident that these writers are experts in their own right. They understand their subjects so well, they force their readers to understand too.
Consciousness presents a particular challenge to the expositor. The mysteries that make it so interesting also make it hard to comprehend. Even a gifted thinker like Penrose turns silly on this topic, weaving arbitrary speculations from threads of computer science, neurophysiology and quantum gravity.
The problem with consciousness is that it poses philosophical as well as scientific puzzles. Even if we knew everything about the brain, we would still find it hard to understand how the water of neuronal activity turns into the wine of subjective feeling. Because of his, popular writers on consciousness can be very good at describing the fascinating scientific material, but have trouble keeping clear of the philosophical quicksands.
I encountered some of these difficulties when writing my just- published Introducing Consciousness for Icon Books: the latest in the flourishing series of texts with cartoon graphics that started over 20 years ago with Marx for Beginners. But my burden was eased by the illustrator, Howard Selina, who faced the unenviable task of thinking up drawings to help explain the mind-brain relation. For my part, I found the graphic format a positive aid. While the illustrations cut down the space available for words, they greatly eased the exposition. Instead of straining to keep the reader's attention, I could leave that to the graphics and concentrate on getting the hard issues straight.
Susan Greenfield's new book grapples with the puzzle of consciousness, but she has to make do without pictures or conversations. Instead she offers the infectious enthusiasm that familiar to many from herbroadcasting. Some readers may find themselves hankering for more analysis, and fewer exhortations to "go along with" this idea or "buy into" that model. …