In which I talk about why it is that particle physics and cosmology are so over-represented in popular physics, and why my own books contribute to that.
[The too-short excerpts on the new front page are beyond my ability to change, so I’ll be doing Victorian-style “In which…” summaries at the start of posts as a work-around, so a casual visitor has some idea what a psot is about before clicking through.]
One of the maddening things about the recent upgrade of the ScienceBlogs back end has been that a lot of things have been posted during that time that I wanted to respond to. Near the top of that list is this Curious Wavefunction post about Physics’s PR Problem:
But I think physics also has a PR problem, and it’s of a different kind than chemistry’s. This statement should elicit gasps of indignation, since the Greenes, Hawkings and Kakus seem to be doing quite well; they are household names and every one of their books instantly gathers hundreds of positive reviews on Amazon. But there’s still a problem and it’s not one that is acknowledged by many of these leading popular expositors, at least partly because doing so would rob them of their next big NewYork Times bestseller and the accompanying profits. Look at the physics section in your B&N next time and you will understand what I am talking about.
The problem is that most of the popular physics that the public enjoys constitutes perhaps 10% of the research that physicists worldwide are engaged in. Again, count the number of physics books in your local bookstore, and you will notice that about 90% of them cover quantum mechanics, cosmology, particle physics and “theories of everything”. You would be hard-pressed to find volumes on condensed matter physics, biophysics, the physics of “soft” matter like liquids and non-linear dynamics. And yes, these are bonafide fields of physics that have engaged physics’s best minds for decades and which are as exciting as any other field of science. Yet if you ask physics-friendly laymen what cutting-edge physics is about, the answers will typically span the Big Bang, Higgs boson, black holes, dark matter, string theory and even time-travel. There will be scant mention if any of say spectroscopy, optics, polymers, magnetic resonance, lasers or even superconductivity.
This is something I have ranted about before, most recently in the Trickle Down Science post (which was also hurt by the upgrade breaking things, in this case the front-page and Last 24 Hours feeds). The physics that gets most of the press is only a tiny minority of what is currently studied by physicists– the largest single category of physics research is in “condensed matter” physics, dealing with the properties of large collections of atoms and electrons. Not coincidentally, this is also the area with the greatest practical impact– materials and technologies developed by condensed matter physicists are at the heart of just about everything we do these days. Computers, cell phones, iPads and iPods, Kindles and Nooks, and all the rest run on condensed matter physics. Lots of “green” technologies now in development– better solar panels, better batteries, etc.– will come out of condensed matter physics research. And on, and on, and on.
But, as the Wavefunction post notes, you would be hard pressed to find a popular book on these topics in your local big-box chain. The vast majority of what is published in pop-physics covers the same ground over and over again: particle physics, cosmology, and string theory, oh my.
Whenever I post something complaining about this, I’m more or less guaranteed to get a comment or two saying, “Well, if it’s so important to write about this stuff, why are your books about quantum mechanics and relativity? Hmm?” The answer to that is also the reason why this is a hard problem: Money.
I wrote about quantum mechanics and relativity because publishers were willing to pay me to write about quantum mechanics and relativity. They were willing to pay me to write those books because they’re in the business of selling books, and they know that people buy books about quantum mechanics and relativity– just look at the shelves in your local big-box store!
There’s a vicious cycle, here, that makes popularizing a broader range of physics very difficult. The high-profile topics are attractive to the general public, so they buy books about those subjects, so publishers publish more books about those subjects, which makes those areas more popular, and so on.
This is not a problem that’s unique to physics– the same issue plagues pretty much every area of pop culture. It’s why we get long runs of comic-book movies, or Law and Order knock-offs on tv, or My Awesome Werewolf Boyfriend urban fantasy novels, and so on. Publishers are in the business of selling books, and the easiest way to sell somebody a new book is to offer them something just like one they already read and liked.
So that’s the bind we’re in when it comes to expanding PR opportunities for physics. If you want to write pop-physics books that are just slightly different from books that have already been written by Brian Greene and Michio Kaku, there’s a clear market for that. If you want to write about condensed matter, well, that’s a harder sell. People won’t necessarily buy it, unless you find a really clever hook– the closest thing to a popular treatment of condensed matter I’ve read is The Physics of NASCAR, which when I bought it was shelved under “Sports” not “Science.”
Now, there are things you can do to push against this a tiny bit. While my books are about well-trodden subjects like quantum mechanics and relativity, I make a point of emphasizing areas other than particle physics and cosmology. The quantum physics explanations in How to Teach Physics to Your Dog are built around some of the spectacular experiments in quantum optics that have been done in the last twenty years or so. How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog has the unavoidable chapters on particle physics and cosmology, but I worked hard to keep the core examples more grounded than that, and worked in mentions of the optical clock experiments testing relativity at everyday scales. Both book proposals listed chapters on extra dimensions and string theory, but both of those chapters got cut for length.
The other thing that can work is to build popularity in one area, and then leverage that to write about something less intrinsically popular. As the Wavefunction post notes, though, there’s basically no incentive for most popularizers to do that. Greene and Hawking and Kaku are writing about what they do for a living, which they of course think is the coolest thing ever. Why would they turn to writing about some other area of physics that they don’t know as well or think as highly of? Should I become established enough to be able to sell a talking-to-the-dog book just on the strength of my previous successes, I’ll certainly think about doing How to Teach Condensed Matter Physics to Your Dog (the idea I’m currently working on does not involve Emmy, though). But there are some big “ifs” implicit in that sort of plan.
You could also try to get some publisher to take a chance on a book about a different area– I’m actually a little surprised that the 100th anniversary of the discovery of superconductivity in 1911 passed without any popular books on the subject (that I noticed, anyway). But with publishing going through a wrenching transition due to the whole ebook thing, there’s not a whole lot of room for big risk-taking, and smaller publishers (university presses and the like) also have smaller reach. It’s always possible that a relatively obscure book from a smaller publisher might blow up big, but that’s not really a viable plan…
So, it’s a Hard Problem, and I’m not sure what can be done about it. If I land a seven-figure deal for the movie rights to How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, well, that would greatly increase the chances of How to Teach Condensed Matter Physics to Your Dog, but I won’t be holding my breath…