Sunday, March 07, 2010

What's in a book?

In the comments to my recent post "Addicted!," Steven, Christine and I were discussing the value of science books. Steven let us know he has "a sick addiction to Science books" and Christine writes "I want to die reading a book." Around the same time, Sean Carroll over at Cosmic Variance polled his readers for what got them interested in science. The results show that the biggest chunk of the cake is science books, followed by SF/Fantasy which I suppose also has a book fraction. And in a recent Nature Editorial, titled "Back to books," it is argued that "Researchers should be recognized for writing books to convey and develop science," and
"[R]esearchers should embrace the book as another means of expressing not only their insights but also their visions.... It is time to bring the book back into the science mainstream. This needn't be a mass movement: just a dedicated few, but more of them, could fulfil the reasonable hope that their books will inspire a new generation. And they should be encouraged to do so."

I had a mixed reaction to the Nature article. On the one hand, I have previously argued that researchers' contributions to advance scientific discourse inside their community, across communities and with the public should be better acknowledged. As should be other community services and public services in general. I proposed that instead of expecting researchers to be all-rounders and do a little of everything which is then generally done sloppily, one should allow for a specialization in task which would have the benefit of allowing them to focus on what they're best at. Besides that it could counteract specialization in topic.

On the other hand I was wondering who is supposed to read all these books. How many books does the world really need? Isn't everybody writing a book or wants to write a book anyway? I would be concerned that with more popular science books and textbooks coming out these would just become increasingly more specialized. Which publisher wants to print the 50th criticism of string theory, whether or not it's an expression of somebody's insight?

I could picture myself standing in the library when I was a teenager staring at all these aisles full of books and books and more books. Where to start? I couldn't possibly read them all, so now what? 20 years later though things have changed. Today you can quickly and easily check online for book recommendations and learn about other people's opinions. It might not always work too well, but you don't have to rely on one librarian and otherwise make good guesses. The other thing that I didn't know when I was 13 is that it doesn't matter much where you start. If you trace back references you'll find what you were looking for (unless you really started in an entirely disconnected part of the citation network.)

Thus, I think I shouldn't be too concerned that we'll end up having too many books. So what do I look for in a popular science book?
  • Information
    Most obviously, a book isn't a random string of ascii characters, but it contains information. On the other hand, research papers also do that. There is the issue with subscription though. While I'm fortunate to have access to the majority of subscription journals, a book can provide information that might not be freely available to everyone.

  • Knowledge
    But besides that, a book ideally provides the reader with an overview on a subject, and with explanations beyond the information. With a well written book one can draw upon the knowledge of an expert who is familiar with his field.

  • Time and effort
    A book is usually more carefully edited than journal articles. Ideally, great care has been taken to erase any sloppiness, and to make it accessible to the expected readership. That includes avoiding gaps in the argumentation, inconsistent or not introduced terminology, and disconnected branches of arguments.

  • Personal account
    A book can do a good job making science more human. It's a place to tell the story behind the result, to make science fun, add a dose of humor and some anecdotes. To me that's one of the main reasons to read a popular science book rather than, say, a review article in a journal. I want to know if the researchers ever had any doubts and what difficulties they faced. What do they believe but don't know? What was their inspiration? I want to know what they were thinking, what they were or are concerned of, and what their hopes and dreams are.

  • The big picture
    Finally, in a book it is possible to embed ones research into the big picture in a way that's not possible in research articles. What world-view has the writer obtained from his or her research? What relevance do they believe their results could have, in a decade, in a century, in a thousand years? What is their vision? How does their research relate to other disciplines and do they see any connection? How do they see themselves in the history of science? What made their research change them their opinion on?

These are points I value very much in books. Textbooks are somewhat different. One of the big disadvantages of textbooks in active research fields is that they are rapidly outdated. The Living Reviews are a great step to alleviate this problem. Unfortunately, I find them hard to read. I'd rather have a printed textbook with an update option, eg a website where one could download chapters added within the course of years.


  1. I agree that the internet has made it so much easier not just to find books on the subject you are interested in, but to find them per se so that you can read them, via Amazon, Abe books and all (which connect into many small and second-hand booksellers). When I was younger, you just had no chance of getting a book that wasn't in print/in stock somewhere. Now, you can order it online and it comes in a parcel from some tiny bookshop in a village somewhere! (I have ordered books for my children that I enjoyed when young in this way, for example).

    I think it is great for scientists to share their specialist knowledge by writing books. Scientific papers, and even reviews and other informal journal articles, are quite hard for laypeople, and students in schools, to understand as, unfortunately, they are not written in a very personal or appealing way. In a book, however, an author has the help of an agent and specialist editors to pitch their accounts in a way to enthuse the general and young readership out there, to stimulate interest in science.

    (Disclaimer, I am an editor at Nature though I was not involved in this particular set of articles.)

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  3. Hi Bee,

    This piece I find to resonate particularly strongly for me, since I consider how I think and undertand the world to have been in a large part guided and shaped by the books I have read over the years. Although I would admit to the majority of them being of the popular science and related text book variety, there are others that stand as philosophical writings or simply good literature. I think we all can remember being reminded that we are what we eat, yet most are seldom warned that what and how we think is shaped by what we read or worse what we haven’t. However the sad truth today is that the reading of any sort of book is becoming an almost extinct activity among the general population, with perhaps more shockingly being little effected by how much education people have. This saddens me for I would contend that still the best way to come to know the important thoughts of others, is to be found in reading books by those that had them come to be known.

    I would also wager that when it comes to scientists, that the general perception is that they are not by in large influenced by what they have read, rather more formed by the virtue of their discipline to pursue new knowledge as to forsake the old. However as result of what I’ve read by many of the greatest of your past and present peers, it became evident that this is certainly not true at all. I would say the clearest this was revealed to me was by one of the most revered of all scientists, with that being Albert Einstein. I realize I have noted it before, yet please indulge me as to allow it be quoted again for I truly feel it sums up nicely what your article conveys as to the value of books and the importance of reading as many of the best we can find

    “Somebody who only reads newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else. And what a person thinks on his own without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of other people is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous. There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste within a century. What has been preserved of their work belongs among the most precious possessions of mankind. We owe it to a few writers of antiquity (Plato, Aristotle, etc.) that the people in the Middle Ages could slowly extricate themselves from the superstitions and ignorance that had darkened life for more than half a millennium. Nothing is more needed to overcome the modernist's snobbishness.”

    -Albert Einstein,-Ideas and Opinions-Crown Publishers(1954)

    Interesting for me I discovered that these words were penned in the same year as my birth and have ever since felt a connection in knowing I existed at a time when he was still here to have me years later inspired by his words.



  4. Hi Maxine,

    Oh yes, that's true. What a pain it was to order a book, especially if it wasn't printed by a German publisher. It would take forever to get it. Nowadays you can have it shipped overnight! (I also have to admit I haven't yet read the other articles except the Editorial. I'm lagging behind with, well, everything it seems.) Best,


  5. In my opinion, books and research articles are just like houses and bricks. A professional researcher, who will be asked to build new kinds of brick, new sorts of pipe, etc. may however always bear on mind how his own part is to be integrated within the whole, so books can help in keeping the whole picture in sight despite focusing on details. More or less, reading an (excellent) introductory book on some topic can stand for a (good) university lecture on this topic.

    Personnally speaking, one book that prompted me to delve further in the subject has been Gleick's Chaos:Making a New Science, which I have found both very popularized and quite rigorous. After having read it, it was possible for me to read without overwhelming confusion technical articles dealing with the subject. The contrary could not be possible, i.e., comprehend technical articles first then end up with the big book, as in this case the forest is always hidden by the tree.

    One may believe books to be disappearing in the future because of the rich availability of texts on the Internet, but the fact is, reading too long texts displayed on a LCD screen isn't healthy for the eyes... To be less pragmatic, I think one should also add here that the information provided by the Internet is fragmented, shattered, broken up, and books are there to compensate this, I mean, help keeping concepts in large thought structures


  6. Popular science books are also an efficient vector for spreading subtle misconceptions in the general public.

  7. ... certified science textbooks //also// often spread subtle misconceptions ... but are less efficient at spreading them to the general public, because fewer people actually read them. :)

  8. Another bullet-point advantage that a science book can have over a research article is honesty.

    A book allows an author to set out what they really think about a subject without worrying about anonymous peer review forcing them to edit for style, or to delete or rewrite sections that don't correspond to a current popular consensus viewpoint.

    I'm not sure that Galieo's "Dialogue ..." or Darwin's "Origin of Species" (or Newton's "Principia" and "Opticks") would have been improved if they'd had to be written in such a way as to pass contemporary peer review or be cleared by some other panel of experts as being "suitable for educational use".

  9. Hi Bee,

    Like I said earlier I totally agree that books are still the most powerful of tools when it comes to learn and know about things and yet I would say a well structured and delivered lecture comes in at a close second. So I guess this really has me as old fashion. The advantage of z lecture is that the speaker can place emphasis on what they feel important and to have their excitement of discovery come alive for their audience.

    If given the choice I prefer to attend live lectures, although there are a few audio only recorded ones out there that I would recommend to anyone; such as those of Richard Feynman. I wish there were more produced this way as it certainly can have ones rush hour drive to work become less frustrating and more productive.

    Now there’s a thought, which is to wonder, when are they going to have our vehicles technically advanced enough to drive themselves, so I could spend the hour each way it takes in getting to work reading a good book. Isn’t it curious that the concern today with hands free devices is to have our hands free so our minds can remain on driving, when it should be how can our hands be freed from driving so that our minds be allowed to do other things. Just imagine how many books one could read in those two hours a day, five days a week; perhaps this is what heaven is like;-)



  10. Steven let us know he has "a sick addiction to Science books"

    Unfortunately true. I could probably buy a new ford F-150 fully loaded had I put the money I spent on books in a piggy bank rather than books.

    I'd rather have the knowledge.

    Or both. And a Shelby Cobra, since I'm dreaming, dream big.

    My son is in his 3rd year of Biomedical Engineering at Rutgers. He told me if you stand before a library bookshelf 9 feet wide and 6 feet tall, you're looking at all the books you will have time to read in your life, so choose well the books you read. Being his Dad, of course I had to correct him. In my case son, I said, make that two bookshelves.

    Self-diagnosed OCDer,

  11. @Igor: Popular science books are also an efficient vector for spreading subtle misconceptions in the general public.

    A general public is by definition no expert. So one had better provide it with ideas which are half right-half wrong rather than with no conception at all. Half by half, each one can tend to understand things that are very complicated. But if you begin teaching the general public with overwhelming details, what you will get is general refusal, which is bad anyway. Compromise is always the most democratic choice.


  12. Ursula Le Guin

    In its silence, a book is a challenge: it can't lull you with surging music or deafen you with screeching laugh tracks or fire gunshots in your living room; you have to listen to it in your head. A book won't move your eyes for you the way images on a screen do. It won't move your mind unless you give it your mind, or your heart unless you put your heart in it. It won't do the work for you. To read a story well is to follow it, to act it, to feel it, to become it--everything short of writing it, in fact. Reading is not "interactive" with a set of rules or options, as games are; reading is actual collaboration with the writer's mind. No wonder not everybody is up to it.-
    Quote from Scienceblogs,"Shifting Literature by Jennifer L. Jacquet?

    Memory, is more then just libraries:)



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