Popular Science Writing: Communicating Science to Peers and Public

By Khoon, Koh Aik; Daud, Abdul Razak et al. | Reading Improvement, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Popular Science Writing: Communicating Science to Peers and Public


Khoon, Koh Aik, Daud, Abdul Razak, Samat, Supian, ABD-Shukor, R., Jalar-Jalil, Azman, Reading Improvement


M. Shermer (2007) in his column published in a recent issue of Scientific American opines that "Over the past three decades I have noted two disturbing tendencies in both science and society: first, to rank the sciences from "hard" (physical sciences) to "medium" (biological sciences) to "soft" (social sciences); second, to divide science writing into two forms, technical and popular. And, as such rankings and divisions are wont to do, they include an assessment of worth, with the hard sciences and technical writing respected the most, and soft sciences and popular writing esteemed the least. Both these prejudices are so far off the mark that they are not even wrong." This paper is not going to be judgemental on the merits of the different categories of sciences and writing. It is purely on the popular science writing itself. In recent years, the popularity of popular science writing is burgeoning. The writers are not only from the popular science magazines such as New Scientist, Physics Today, Scientific American and Physics World, they also include top-notch scientists like Stephen Hawking and Nobel laureate like Murray Gel-Mann. Hawking's A Brief History of Time has been a New York Times bestseller list back in 1988 and Gel-Mann's The Quark and the Jaguar has also evoked much popular interest due largely to its seductive title. Compared with the technical text books in all scientific disciplines, popular science writing can be viewed as a mere drop in the ocean. This can be attributed to the fact that not many people have the flair for writing for the public especially for something which is highly technical. Nevertheless the rank of popular science writers has grown as there is a demand for such books. Elizabeth Taylor has famously said that the gift of the writers has made our world not a dull place. We agree with her.

Categories of Popular Science Writing

As a whole, popular science books dwell largely on three major themes. They are the three P's, namely Personalities, Phenomena and Principles. The personalities are usually great scientists whose works have made an impact on our lives. Albert Einstein is a case in point. Books on him have been deemed as collectors' delight (Koh et al, 2008). In 2005, many books on Einstein emerged in the market in line with the World Year of Physics. Peter Freund's book A Passion for Discovery is a very interesting book on scientific personalities. In one episode, a young German scientist discovered the electron spin but he was talked out of publishing it because his mentor thought it was nonsense. It was a work worthy of a Nobel prize. We learn of the peril of believing in a man whom we think has a halo.

Popular books on phenomena include John Brockman's book What We Believe But Cannot Prove and Anahad O'Connor's book Never Shower in a Thunderstorm.

Popular writing centered on the Theory of Relativity (both special and general) and Quantum Mechanics abound. The Quantum World for Everyone by Kenneth W. Ford is a classic example. Ford (2004) has aptly called quantum mechanics (roughly, the physics of the very small) and special relativity (roughly the physics of the very fast). They are the corner stones of physics in the 20th Century. Incidentally there is a book with such title written by Curt Suplee (1999). It is a worthy document about the remarkable flowering of physics in the last century. …

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