Science and Paris Hilton

A not very popular science writer at work
I write in a genre that's usually labelled "popular science" to distinguish it from the real academic stuff. In a recent Scientific American, the excellent Michael Shermer writes that popular science writing is often esteemed less than technical writing, and that he considers it very narrow and naive to regard anything other than peer reviewed papers as "mere popularization."

I must admit, I've always had a bit of inverted view, thinking that, at least from a quality of writing viewpoint, most science writing other than popular science is pretty unreadable. (Someone has to stick up for the poor science writers.)

Yet enthusiastic though I am about popular science, I feel a little nervous about that word "popular." Reading about celebrities like Ms Hilton is popular [2012 note - of course celebrities come and go - if I was writing this now I suppose it would someone from TOWIE or Pippa Middleton], but is reading about science? It's certainly true that there was a brief flowering of popularity around A Brief History of Time, but on the whole, I don't see much science up the front of the bookstores on the "new and exciting things" shelves. I'm much more likely to find a cookbook or a celebrity biography.

This may sound like a moan, but it's not, it's a spur to action. All of us who write this kind of book should be looking for ways to make science genuinely popular. Not only would this boost our royalties (which few of us would object to), it's also important because getting science across to a wider public matters a lot.

My first small contribution is the website which is a review site for popular science books, but that's largely preaching to the converted. As for the rest, I intend to keep trying.

This post first appeared on my Nature Network blog back in 2007- I'm bringing some of the old posts over to my new home, as the NN blog is liable to disappear soon.