Big guns blaze in a rodeo of bestsellers

July 25, 1997

Popular science, hot on solo heroes and Big Answers, could be leaving casual readers in a black hole of unreality. Gail Vines blames our irreligious lives - and a love affair with megastars

Scientists say they write "popular'' books simply to inform. But I suspect that selling science is never that simple. Scan the popular science section of your local bookshop and the sampling error is obvious. Much of what counts as science is missing from the shelves. Treatises on cosmology, quantum physics, neuroscience and evolutionary theory crowd the shelves, but books on chemistry, geology, physiology, materials science and the environment are just not there.

But why are brains and black holes so marketable, while bridges and bumblebees are not? One senior science publisher has an answer. "In a post-religious society, the public reads science books as philosophy,'' Ravi Merchandani says. People want to know about the meaning of life, and the origin of the universe and they turn to the branches of science that seem to offer the answers to these Big Questions. Increasingly, popular science fills the gap left by the decline of religion.

Market research by the magazine New Scientist backs up Merchandani's claim. Putting nuclear power, environmental issues, animals or the third world on the cover deters casual buyers, says editor Alun Anderson. But copies of the magazine fly off the stands when the word "quantum'' appears on the front cover. Neurobiology, consciousness and the roots of mental illness are also popular. "There is a massive interest in what understanding the brain will tell us about ourselves,'' says Anderson.

But what happens if science cannot deliver? "Popular science books are linked to the desire to learn things that science basically can't tell you,'' says geneticist Steve Jones. "People bought Stephen Hawking's book, A Brief History of Time, to understand where we are in the universe. But that's not really a scientific question." Jones says of Matt Ridley's Origins of Virtue, for example, that he does not think science can tell us anything about that quality. Even Richard Dawkins's classic best-seller The Selfish Gene "was bought as an absolution from greed by many'', Jones claims.

So perhaps the public reads science for the "wrong" reasons. But if we do turn to science for moral lessons, should not publishers shoulder some of the blame? I think the publishers' ongoing love affair with the "big gun'' scientist-authors could be part of the problem.

The Cambridge cosmologist's A Brief History of Time sold 12 million copies in English alone, but, according to Susan Abrams of the University of Chicago Press, "virtually nobody has got through it''. Hawking's book seems to have turned in to a kind of relic - something touched by genius, and good to have on your shelf for its reassuring qualities. Yet publishers themselves treat science books as arcane, even sacred texts, when they disregard the intelligibility of what they print. In the post-Hawking search for another cosmological megastar, publishers have paid famous scientists six-figure advances. "But few of these are ever earned out,'' says Abrams. "Even with the help of professional writers, some authors couldn't produce a usable text.'' By contrast, two exceptionally readable books about science - written by working journalists - are now among the top ten best-selling hardbacks. Dava Sobel's Longitude is a rip-roaring sea yarn laced with technoscience, recounting the achievements of John Harrison, an 18th-century English clockmaker. The other hit is Simon Singh's Fermat's Last Theorem, which describes how Englishman Andrew Wiles recently solved a 350-year-old mathematical mystery. Could these books give a popular audience insights in to science in action?

Well, consider Sobel's subtitle: "The True Story of a Lone Genius who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time.'' It makes a terrific story, but the trouble is that "heroic individualism is rarely a reliable guide to the workings of science and technology'', as Cambridge historian Simon Schaffer pointed out recently in the Times Literary Supplement. Without other clockmakers, says Schaffer, "no horological solution to the longitude problem would have succeeded''.

Singh's bestseller is similarly enamoured of geniuses and heroes. The book's winning combination, Singh says, is "a modern hero confronting an interesting problem with strong historical appeal''. The cover reinforces the message: on the front is Fermat, the "ancient hero"; on the back is Wiles, the modern one.

Readers have praised Fermat's Last Theorem, but those who are mathematicians are more wary. Singh's "hyperbole'' elevates the theorem's aficionados to "superhuman levels'', argue Oxford mathematicians John Ockendon and Rebecca Gower in a recent THES review. They also suggest this elevation may do science a disservice. Readers could come away with the impression that the action in maths lies in lone geniuses solving famous problems. In reality, they say, "only a handful of researchers can succeed, working in the utterly single-minded and uncollaborative style adopted by Wiles".

Do we need another hero? "Hagio-graphy is popular,'' Simon Schaffer warned his colleagues at a recent Cambridge meeting on geniuses and heroes in science. "Wait till you get a letter from your publisher saying, 'write something like Sobel'. It is an urgent problem for historians which we barely know how to deal with." In popular science, the rather mundane process of actually doing scientific research is often portrayed as a mystical experience, a scientific epiphany.

In television documentaries, Cambridge historian Jim Secord points out, "religious music comes on to mark the moment of discovery, as the scientist supposedly makes direct contact with nature''. In programmes about Charles Darwin's life, for instance, the great man is typically shown having a flash of insight when he first sees the Galapagos finches. "You can almost hear the celestial choir singing,'' says Secord. "But actually he never worked with the specimens till much later.'' Even worse, Darwin is often portrayed as single-handedly "changing the way we think''. Secord says: "Darwin becomes the symbol of two centuries of work by a whole range of people." Schaffer adds: "There is an unwillingness to distribute ingenuity across time and place and people.'' Stumbling blocks to a hero-free vision of science abound. "Even in our wallets, there are central images of scientific heroes, presented as national figures,'' Secord notices. He is thinking of the tousled-haired Michael Faraday who appears on our Pounds 20 notes looking a bit like Einstein, giving a Royal Institution lecture, the scientific truths beaming out from his head to be absorbed by his patiently attentive audience.

Gail Vines is a biologist and science writer. She is co-author of The Evolution of Life and Tomorrow's Child and author of Raging Hormones. She is writing a book on popular science.

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