Quantum flights to noirish lows

Reading Popular Physics
September 28, 2007

In Anglo-American literary life, the star science author is now a familiar figure at book festivals and on the review pages. Some, from Stephen Hawking to Bill Bryson, have been spectacularly successful. Many others have enjoyed more modest sales, but their cumulative efforts amount to a cultural phenomenon worth studying. Intelligible versions of the most exotic science still reach most people most effectively through that venerable medium, the printed book.

Literary scholars, however, have been slow to respond to the resurgence of popular science writing in the past 30 years. Perhaps the subject matter does not appeal.

Daunting, too, is the sheer profusion of titles. Scholarly explorations have so far tended to focus on single authors, or even titles. Elizabeth Leane goes further, by dint of impressively wide reading and by treating books in one discipline in some depth. Her suggestive study is the first book-length treatment of recent popular physics.

The author trained as a physicist and a literary critic, and her starting point is that "popular science... mediates between science and literature by presenting the content of the former through some of the established techniques of the latter".

But although her approach to specific works is mainly literary, she reads recent reworkings of physics for the masses in the context of the history of popularisation, the two-cultures debate in the UK, and the "science wars" of the 1990s in the US. Along the way, she reviews just about everything written about popularisation and the popular science boom - useful, as the articles and papers she covers are scattered through a variety of journals in literature, science studies, linguistics and other disciplines.

Leane's novel contribution, however, lies in her analyses of three well-chosen batches of titles. First is a study of interpretations of quantum theory, a fixation of popular physics authors since the 1970s. Quantum weirdness evokes many metaphorical flights, and Leane dissects these skilfully to show why Gary Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters , for example, is a more rhetorically slippery guide to the meaning of it all than other books from authors such as Richard Feynman, who are less eager to conflate new physics and old mysticism.

Next she squares up to two of the big guns, writing about the Big Bang. Hawking and Steven Weinberg both begin their books on the topic by declaring that science should supersede myth but, as she argues, both are fashioning origin stories that, in their way, have mythical qualities.

Finally, and most entertainingly, comes a treatment of James Gleick's Chaos and Mitchell Waldrop's Complexity as adopting character stereotypes from the world of hard-boiled detective fiction. This goes beyond previous critiques of the framing of science as detective story - with its implication of an enterprise that moves from unanswered questions to unquestioned answers.

Leane is more interested in the way that noir thriller conventions not only help readers to engage with the narratives of new science, but reinforce a set of character stereotypes of scientists.

In particular, she notes how these authors' enthusiasm for communicating science still goes along with a consistent depiction of the people who do science as socially isolated men.

The whole volume is thus a wide-ranging study of the kind that can be achieved when someone makes "an excursion into a relatively empty field", as Leane herself puts it.

She has a lot to say, with many well-judged comments on other authors. There is, naturally, much more to be said - about popular physics and about science books on other topics. But anyone who wants to consider popular science seriously will want to start here.

Jon Turney is course leader for the MSc in creative non-fiction at Imperial College London.

Reading Popular Physics: Disciplinary Skirmishes and Textual Strategies

Author - Elizabeth Leane
Publisher - Ashgate
Pages - 208
Price - £50.00
ISBN - 9780754658504

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