Who's next?

As if things weren't contentious enough around here already, I've got another subject for general discussion that I'm sure will lead to some debate. In science there has long been a tradition of trying to engage the public, whether it be through public debates/lectures, books, etc. As Stephen Jay Gould noted in the obituary he wrote for Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection entwines both technical and popular writing into an effective and important package. (Indeed, the widely-published version of On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection was Darwin's abstract for a much larger work, the unfinished technical version only seeing the light of day in rare versions that most people don't know exist.) This tradition did not start with Darwin (see the recently published book The Earth on Show: Fossils and the Poetics of Popular Science, 1802-1856), but it seems that as the years have ticked by the public has come to regard science as more inaccessible and distant than in the past.

Writers like Sagan and Gould often bridged the gap between the curious public and a seemingly incomprehensible tangle of scientific jargon, and the gap both writers left when they departed is still felt. Other scientists with a talent for writing are still at it, E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins being two of the most well-known, but Wilson never quite seemed to gain the same popularity as his peers and Dawkins is presently so embroiled in debates about atheism that science has taken a back seat in his activities. Gould, Sagan, Wilson, and Dawkins might represent the "big four" of late 20th century science writing, but there are plenty of other authors who should be given consideration, too. John McPhee, an especially prolific writer (especially on matters geological), is often overlooked, and primatologist Jane Goodall has been very active in public outreach and communication. Still, all the previously mentioned people represent the elder generation of science writers, and I have to wonder who might eventually take up the pen (or keypad) in their stead.

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Robert Sapolsky immediately come to my mind, although I don't think they are read as widely as they should be. Even if they did enjoy a wider readership, though, I don't know if they could really be called the next "Sagan" or "Gould" (if we should even be asking that question). Sagan and Gould were very much engaged with the public, Sagan through his column in Parade and the Cosmos series, Gould through his monthly essays in Natural History and other appearances (I first saw him in a documentary about dinosaurs, and even though I didn't know who he was or why I should care at age 8, I was still enlivened by his passion for the subject).

It might not be safe to assume that we should be looking to fill the shoes of two popularizers who are generally highly regarded for the power of their prose. The next prolific popular writer will likely have a style and influence all their own, although it's likely that we're not going to fully appreciate their efforts until they've undertaken them for some time. Perhaps science blogging will give rise to a new group of popularizers (we are writers, after all), although at present the primary readers of blogs and popular science books tend to be those who are already curious or interested in the subjects discussed within.

There are plenty of attempts at popular science writing, though, and not all of them turn out so well. Part of the success of figures like Sagan and Gould resided in their ability to take a quirk of nature or history and make it take on a new relevance, seemingly disparate specifics ultimately allowing us a more comprehensive view.

Both Gould and Sagan broke the stereotype of scientists as inherently bad communicators. There are plenty of attempts at popular science writing, some more successful than others, but it is heartening that two of the most celebrated authors of recent times were working scientists. It might be easy for me to appreciate scientific discovery, to marvel at it and try to explain why it is important, but experience is an extremely important factor and that's something not every popular science writer can lay claim to.

I've continually gone back to Sagan and Gould throughout this post because I love their books and essays, and I think the passion they had for their work really came through in what they did. The vast body of their collected works were as much for scientists as they were for lay audiences, and it's this sort of respect for their readers that has allowed me to become so drawn into what they've written. Obviously you will likely have your own favorites (I don't expect everyone to agree with me that Sagan and Gould were among the greatest science writers), but I do have to wonder who we'll all be reading and talking about in years to come.

[Unfortunately there are no stand-alone clips of Gould on youtube, so you'll have to wait until this video loads and go to about halfway through if you want to see his interview with Charlie Rose. It's especially relevant to the content of this post.]

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What about Jared Diamond? Hahaha, couldn't resist, sorry.

I'm getting tired of listening to Dawkin's and his fundamentalism, because, really, he sounds just like a fundamentalist religious person, and the way he talks makes him no better. The existence of god cannot be proven or disproved by science, therefore it is irrelevant as a scientific topic. I'm an atheist, but that's my choice, and if someone wants to believe in a god, that's their choice. No one has to believe in what science has demonstrated (I won't say proven, we all know that only applies to Laws, which are few and far between), because something that is demonstrable requires no belief. It just is. But I know many, many people who have no problem at all reconciling their religious and spiritual beliefs with their understand of science, without requiring that any sort of Intelligent Design "theory" be taught in a science class. Atheists like Dawkins make me just as frustrated as Creationists, because all they're doing is spouting their dogma and assuming everyone else is an idiot.

Science doesn't need that kind of publicity.

Jared Diamond, Garett Hardin, Rachel Carson, George Gamow, Isaac Asimov.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 01 Feb 2008 #permalink

The existence of god cannot be proven or disproved by science,

Actually, that depends entirely on the definition of 'god'.

I think you need to consider the implications of rationalism a bit more carefully.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 01 Feb 2008 #permalink

There a number of non-scientists who do a good job of conveying science to the public, with Carl Zimmer and David Quamman notable examples. Matt Ridley, with a doctorate in zoology but practicing science journalism, sort of straddles the two. On the history of science, Peter Bowler and Edward Larson are particularly good.

But no one has taken Sagan's or (particularly) Gould's place. No one probably can.

Those are all great names, but many of them are dead, and none have the general exposure that Sagan had.

As Mr. Pieret said, no one has taken those places.

(Goodness, I've commented too much here lately. Better back off for a bit.)

By Caledonian (not verified) on 01 Feb 2008 #permalink

I have to mention two of my favorite science popularizers --Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman -- even though I'm a biologist and not a physicist. Dyson is one of my favorite writers, period.

By Bob Hoesch (not verified) on 01 Feb 2008 #permalink

I don't know. I definately agree that scientists need to do a better job of communicating with the general public, but I also think that the public's misguided distrust in science, as well as the state of apathy in this country, is more of a barrier. The same general public must be willing to LEARN a little something about science.

I think people (in general) only read what reaffirms their own worldview these days.

The existence of god cannot be proven or disproved by science,

Actually, that depends entirely on the definition of 'god'.

All right, how would you define god? Then, having defined it, how would you test whether or not god existed? What kind of data would you have, and what methodology would you use? This isn't to sound snarky, I really want to know. The scientific writers I've read who have dealt with the question of religion consider that proving or disproving the existence of god does lie outside of science.

Diamond and Zimmer are two that come to my mind immediately...the nature of media has changed so much in just the last five years, though, that I think that truly successful "popularizers" in the future are going to have to do more than just write books that appeal to a lay audience, using outlets is going to be important. I am not trying to demean the importance of books, I certainly don't plan to stop buying them any time soon, but people are become more and more eclectic in their knowledge sources.


I second your endorsement of John McPhee, who deserves consideration as one of the best living nonfiction writers in English. His geology series (reissued in a single volume in 1999 as Annals of the Formal World) is outstanding.

One thing that is notable in the case of McPhee is that, unlike the other writers in your list, he has no scientific background or training. This means on the one hand that unlike Diamond or Gould, for example, his work contains no original work. But I don't think we should call work like this "popularization," which connotes far more unity in the scientific community than there really is. Part of the task of books like Basin and Range and Rising from the Plains is to convey the best contemporary understanding of geology with a real sense of awe and wonder (he writes that if he were to summarize all his writing on geology with one sentence it would be: "the summit of Mt. Everest is composed of marine limestone.")

But another task is to put this scientific understanding in context as a dialogue, tracing, e.g., the history of plate tectonics, its attendant controversy, and the remaining holdouts (one of whom, he is not shy in stressing, works for a petroleum interest). As a generalist McPhee is able to weave together various disciplines within science, and to connect them to social and cultural concerns and other "big picture" stuff that tends to fall flat when scientists attempt it, even when they are gifted writers like Sagan or Gould.

Back to your list: It would be refreshing to see more promotion of books that explore the heterodox areas of biology, such as those by Brian Goodwin, Evelyn Fox Keller, John Dupre, Lynn Margulis, Stuart Kaufmann, and others, all of whom challenge in one way or another the modern synthesis, and prevailing gene-centric "blueprint" paradigm of development. (And all of whom are credentialed scientists, save Dupre, who is a philosopher of science at Exeter. None of them are theists).

If what we are popularizing is a univocal endorsement of scientific understanding, then we are little more than propagandists, and thus anathemic to the spirit of scientific inquiry.

I love love love John McPhee's writing; for a biologically themed sample of his work I highly recommend The Founding Fish, on American Shad. It's as much about fishing as fish though.
My other all-time favorite is David Quammen.
Neither of these guys is a scientist; their MO (like Carl Zimmer) is to hang around with working scientists, ask a gazillion questions, and then write beautifully about the answers they receive.

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 03 Feb 2008 #permalink