Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Dropping Science Like Galileo Dropped the Orange*

Recently I was gushing about some great popularizers of science on the internet and television (e.g., Sir David!) and when I realized Carl Sagan was Bill Nye's teacher there seemed to be this link stretching back in time to so many who brought science to life for the general public and other scientists alike. Many of my favorites have been writers, and books can have such a profound impact on an individual and on society. The first natural scientist writer I read was Steven J. Gould when I was a teenager, and I think the first book was The Flamingo's Smile. I really loved reading Gould's ideas related to evolution and his writing style makes the reader feel smart just for reading his books**.

I enjoyed Biophilia by E. O. Wilson around the same time that I first found Gould, and many years later I read The Theory of Island Biogeography, which he wrote with Robert McArthur. Island Biogeography (less of a "popular" science book, really) is all about how species can spread as a function of the size of an island and the distance to the mainland, and McArthur and Wilson's ideas were even supported by observations of re-colonization of volcanic islands (nomotheticism for the win!). Until that point, I had only ever thought about secondary succession (recovery from a partial ecological disturbance like logging or fire), and primary succession (ecosystem regeneration from colonization but without endogenous reproduction like after a volcano or uplift of a new island) seemed bizarre and otherworldly.

Other "real" scientists who have written popular science books like The Selfish Gene and Six Easy Pieces*** have also done a lot to promote their own fields, and I don't think one has to choose between being serious about their research and communicating its importance to the public. What these authors seem to have done so well, though, is to achieve it without dumbing down the science, to trust that people will be able to understand their writing and be interested by it.

An even earlier favorite of mine was Rats, Lice, and History by Hans Zinsser, which seemed both archaic and modern in its serious but in many ways quirky review of typhus epidemics. And further and further back, there have been popularizers of science back to the Greeks. Many scientists have also had to be good salespeople to promote themselves and their ideas, to procure investment in science and to be able to continue their research (sometimes even to the detriment of others). More later on that.

*Apologies to MCA.

** I'll probably return to Gould in a later post just because his ideas are so interesting to me.

*** My favorite Feynman quote is similar to one I like from Konrad Lorenz: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself -- and you are the easiest person to fool."

**** So I've written this whole post about popular science writers and realized that it doesn't have a single woman in it, which makes me feel kind of shitty. In my defense, my last post had lots of women who popularize science, and future posts will as well.

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