How to Think Like a Scientist

I have made allusions to a work-in-progress at various points recently, but my general policy is not to reveal any details until things become official. Well, as you can see from the above photo of signed contracts, it's official: I sold the work-in-progress to Basic Books, my publisher for How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog. The contract calls for 70,000 words (which most likely means the first draft will clock in at 110,000...) of a work tentatively titled How to Think Like a Scientist (because I'm only allowed to publish books with "How to..." in the title...).

So, what is this? Well, like my other books, it's grown out of stuff I've written on the blog, particularly Science Is What Makes Us Human, Science Is Our Human Heritage, and especially Everybody Thinks Scientifically. It's not a talking-physics-to-the-dog book (Emmy is disappointed, and sulking...), but a big-picture book on science in a broader sense.

The core argument, as in those blog posts, is that the process of science-- looking at the world, thinking of possible explanations for how it works, testing those models by experiment, and telling everyone the results-- is an essential human activity, something every human is capable of. And, in fact, every human does make use of this process, in a wide range of everyday activities. Millions of people who don't think of themselves as scientists are, in fact, thinking like scientists every day, in pursuit of hobbies and other activities they enjoy.

The plan is to lay out that basic process, then illustrate it with a bunch of examples, taking some everyday hobby activity, showing how it relies on some aspect of scientific thinking, and showing how a historical scientific discovery relied on a process analogous to what is used in that hobby. Draft chapters compare playing bidding card games like bridge to the Rutherford, Marsden, and Geiger experiment that discovered the structure of the atom, doing crossword puzzles to piecing together the improbable structure of quantum physics, and playing basketball to precision timekeeping. I'm currently working on something using On the Origin of Species to argue that Rutherford's "physics and stamp collecting" quote maybe ought to be considered less as a dig at biologists than as a compliment to stamp collectors.

This is, obviously, rather different than anything else I've written, and it's going to be a bit of a challenge in a number of ways. It's going to have some more personal anecdotes in it (meaning I'll have to walk the line between including enough to be charming while not including so much as to seem egotistical), it's going to involve a lot of historical anecdotes (meaning a lot of time chasing references on the Internet and in the library), and it's going to involve talking about science outside my own area of expertise (meaning I'll need beta readers-- I'm already lining up biologists to correct my egregious errors about Darwin). and, of course, I'm trying to do this while serving as department chair, and with two little kids in the house.

It's going to be a ton of work in the next year (delivery date is Jan 1, 2014), but I think it'll also be a lot of fun, for really geeky values of "fun." It will undoubtedly take a toll on the blog, though-- most of my non-work-related writing time will need to be spent on the book, not here. Some bits and pieces that get cut out of the book are sure to end up on the blog, though, which I hope will whet people's appetites for the eventual book.

So, anyway, that's what I've been up to, and what I'll be up to. And, if you'll excuse me, I need to go read some more Darwin.

More like this

Almost everybody, regardless of what side they favor in the culture wars, knows that Charles Darwin was the first scientist to come up with the theory of evolution. At least, they think they do. In fact, lots of people had the general idea long before Darwin, including his own grandfather. We…
Copies of Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist have been turning up in the wild for a while now, but the officially official release date is today (available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, Powell’s, and anywhere else books are sold). To mark that, here's some stuff I wrote about the…
The great British physicist Ernest Rutherford once said "In science, there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting." This is kind of the ultimate example of the arrogance of physicists, given a lovely ironic twist by the fact that when Rutherford won a Nobel Prize, it was in Chemistry. (…
Richard Reeves is probably best known for writing biographies of American Presidents (Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan), so it's a little strange to see him turn his hand to scientific biography. This is part of Norton's "Great Discoveries" series (which inexplicably lacks a web page-- get with the 21st…

Congrats, Chad! That sounds like a really interesting concept and I'm looking forward to buying it! Here's to a writing process that's more or less straightforward and frustration-free.

This sounds like a great concept for a book. I like anything aimed at convincing nonscientists that science is not beyond their abilities. Much better than another book about high energy physics, which is what I would have guessed your publisher would ask for next.

By Matt Leifer (not verified) on 06 Dec 2012 #permalink

Well, if all your book titles start with "How To . . .", at least you'll be in good company with Robert Williams Wood (How To Tell The Birds From The Flowers), and Will Cuppy (How To Be A Hermit, How To Tell Your Friends From The Apes, How To Become Extinct, and How To Attract The Wombat).

By Tim Eisele (not verified) on 06 Dec 2012 #permalink

W00t! So looking forward to this!

Chad, back in March, you sent me an email asking if I had anything further from my discussion with Rick Roach, the Florida school board member who failed a 10th grade math exam required for graduation. (Unfortunately, I still have nothing to add; he never got back to me after we agreed to figure out a time to meet, and it's been a year now.) You mentioned at the time that you were working on a new project on scientific literacy that might turn into a book. Is this it? I look forward to anything new you have to say on that subject, and I can pass along contact info if you're interested.

By Tom Singer (not verified) on 06 Dec 2012 #permalink


By Michael I (not verified) on 07 Dec 2012 #permalink

Great! The pervasiveness of scientific thinking in the everyday can act as an important reminder to the validity of the scientific approach in this age of truthiness. From what you've written about it, the book seems it will have a more descriptive/analytical flavor. Have you thought of giving it an inspirational slant? E.g. by acknowledging where we use science in our everyday lives, we can hone our critical thinking and better analyze the challenges that face us in our own lives and society as a whole. Good luck!

By Max Puelma Touzel (not verified) on 08 Dec 2012 #permalink

Awesome. Both your previous books have been great reads, and I'm looking forward to this one!

By Matt Springer (not verified) on 12 Dec 2012 #permalink