Science: 3.8% Notable

Last year, around this time, I posted a rant about the lack of science books in the New York Times‘s “Notable Books of 2007.” While I was out of town last week, they posted this year’s list. So, have things improved?

Yes and no. They do, in fact, have two books that are unquestionably science books on the list: THE DRUNKARD?S WALK: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow (which I also reviewed), and THE SUPERORGANISM: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies, by Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson.

By my count, they list 52 non-fiction titles, meaning that a whole 3.8% of the list is given over to science. Woo-hoo!

(They list an additional five books that probably have some science content, but from the descriptions do not sound like they are primarily about science: The Big Sort, Blood Matters, Descartes’ Bones, Predictably Irrational, and Traffic. I’m being really generous, and counting economics as a science. These figures are more or less in line with the historical trend.)

To put that in perspective, they include six books that appear to be memoirs by people with miserable pasts, and three literary biographies. Which tells you where science rates with the book reviewers of the Paper of Record.

I’m not entirely sure what I think would be a reasonable number of science titles in the 100 most “notable” books of the year, but I think I’d like there to be more books about science than depressing stories about alcoholism and child abuse.

I’m being snarky, but it’s hard not to be. We quite literally would not have the world we do without modern science, and yet, as a general matter, it’s not something that is considered interesting by people who consider themselves intellectuals. Take a look at Amazon’s top ten science books, for example– don’t you think there might be a book or two on there that rates more notice than a book about the Best Picture nominees of 1967?

(I suppose I should be grateful that there’s nothing that jumps out as quite as irritatingly as Tina Brown writing about Princess Diana…)

My science reading has been somewhat curtailed this year by my science writing, but even so, I managed to find more good science books than the entire Times reviewing staff. Physics for Future Presidents is as worthy of a read as any of the host of books offering Deep Thoughts about our Middle East entanglements. Richard Reeves’s Rutherford biography was a great read, though evidently not weighty enough to be Notable. I’ve got a copy of The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn sitting in front of me, and it looks really interesting, and you might think a physics book by a Nobel laureate would be worth a look, especially with the endless LHC hype of recent years. And that’s just books on physics– there are bookstore shelves groaning under the weight of books on the life sciences that I don’t have time to read.

I firmly believe that this is a big part of why we’re messed up as a society– the most ostentatiously intellectual people in the country don’t think of science as something to take seriously. Alcoholic memoirs are essential reading, but attempting to understand the basic principles on which the universe operates is just too complicated for the book-reading public. And they’re the educated elite– I don’t even want to think about what Firstname the Working-Class Occupation is reading.

Comments

  1. #1 Laelaps
    December 3, 2008

    I remember ranting about this last year, too, but I think Carl Zimmer put it in good perspective in a response he wrote to me. Maybe the relative dearth of science books on the list simply means that there were not many good science books published this year. Last year there were some I really liked (like Baboon Metaphysics), but this year, it’s hard to think of new titles that would be contenders for a top 100 list. (Then again, I’m always a little behind since it’s hard to afford new books, so there could be real gems I know nothing about.)

    Still, are we really just aiming for a certain percentage of the overall selection? At what point do we stop complaining about there being no science books and start complaining about the quality of the books selected? I would love to see more science represented, but if the books put out this year weren’t that good, then the NYT shouldn’t be obligated to pick some just to make us happy.

  2. #2 Tim Eisele
    December 3, 2008

    Well, it would be one thing if Chad was just compaining without offering any possibilities. But, given that he then followed up with four good suggestions for the list just off the top of his head and just in physics, I think he has a point.

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    December 3, 2008

    To put that in perspective, they include six books that appear to be memoirs by people with miserable pasts, and three literary biographies.

    Laelaps: That quote from the post is (at least to me) why there is a problem. It might be OK that science books are only a small fraction of the list if the rest of the list included truly interesting books. And you can make the case for a literary biography making such a list. But six my-past-life-was-miserable memoirs in one year? Puh-LEASE. I don’t see any justification for having more than one such book on a list of this kind, and if you include even one such book it had better be especially well-written and entertaining–it doesn’t have to reach The Diary of Anne Frank heights, but it should come within sight of that goal. Sob stories are a dime a dozen. Been there, read that.

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    December 3, 2008

    I remember ranting about this last year, too, but I think Carl Zimmer put it in good perspective in a response he wrote to me. Maybe the relative dearth of science books on the list simply means that there were not many good science books published this year.

    I disagreed with Carl last year, and I don’t agree with the argument this year, either.

    I think you can get closer to the real source of the problem by noticing that if you look at their science and technology book reviews, they reviewed a whopping ten science books in the past calendar year. And one of those was a novel.

  5. #5 Dan Riley
    December 3, 2008

    Speaking of Carl, my first reaction was that Microcosm belongs on that list…

  6. #6 bcooper
    December 3, 2008

    As a slight skew on what Laelap is saying, I think the appropriate metric is to compare representation of science books in this list to the fraction of all books published in 2008 that are science books. I’d bet 3.8% doesn’t look so bad in that light. Also, I’m assuming that most people who end up at newspapers are going to be coming from literary or political backgrounds, which of course suggests they are going to find those kinds of works more compelling. I don’t think that is supposed to represent a judgment about those being The One True Form of Intellectual Merit.

  7. #7 Rt
    December 10, 2008

    Perhaps this downward headfall into ‘rubbish’ literature has to do with the consumers demand. Unfortunately as it is, where there is demand there is production and so if from small children to adults are bombarded daily with rubbish material which doesn’t educate them they read crap. Culprit: televeision, media and lack of good science material in schools.

  8. #8 Jonathan Vos Post
    December 11, 2008

    #6 (bcooper) suggested that one “compare representation of science books in this list to the fraction of all books published in 2008 that are science books.”

    Each year in North America (Canada + USA as a market) there are roughly 200,000 book titles published. Roughly half are original, and half are reprints. The reprints are typically not to be given prizes. Hence we start with approximately 10^5 new book titles.

    Of these, many are non-science. Most cookbooks are not science books, at least until the breakthrough by my Caltech classmate Harold McGee “On Food and Cooking” which, by the way, was a noted book when an expanded second edition emerged a year or two ago.

    The fiction (roughly half of the 10^5) is not Science, unless it is at that overlap called Science Fiction. But that is outnumbered by other genres, such as Mystery/Detective, Westerns, and (most of all Romance. 1/3 of all fiction sold is Romance. That is, 1/6 of all books sold in North America are Romance. Hence Romance Writers of America is an order of magnitude more multitudionous than Science Fiction Writers of America.

    I can’t say much about Science Writers of America, because my application was rjected (didn’t they want my money?) when I was regularly having the cover story of Omni Magazine (which paid, 20+ years ago, roughly $2,000 per cover article). So I’ve been active in Science Fiction Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, and the National Writers Union.

    Don’t blame the writers for this mess. The median income (from writing) of a writer who actually had a book published last year is in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $20,000. Hence even the writers having their books published need to have a “day job” to pay the bills.

    The writers are writing the books that you love. The publioshers are not promoting them well. The distribution system is medienval and inefficient, which is why Amazon.com propers. The newspapers insufficiently review Science books. Those are the ballpark figures. So what next?

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