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Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Discussing Popular Science - Report of a one-day conference at Imperial College

By Edward Wawrzyncak

What is popular science? A simple enough question, one might think, but there is no handy definition that offers an adequate answer. This was richly demonstrated by a one-day conference ‘Discussing Popular Science’ held at Imperial College under the auspices of the Science Communication group on 22nd February 2008. The meeting, which was organised by Alice Bell and co-chaired by Jon Turney, attracted a diverse mix of participants willing to join in energetic but good-natured debate. The eager audience was treated to some excellent talks enlivened by specimens of rare and beautiful books.

As an experienced populariser, Professor Robin Wilson (Gresham College), author of Four Colours Suffice (2002), shared his experience of bringing mathematics to the public. He offered some valuable tips about writing a popular science book. Try to define your audience: why should they be interested, how much do they know, and what do you need to tell them? If you have to get technical, make sure the narrative still flows; you can always use footnotes, add an appendix, or urge your readers to skip the complicated bits. And strive to get your facts right; omissions are inevitable but inaccuracy is inexcusable.

Oliver Hochadel (Vienna) outlined why the search for mankind’s origins is attractive as a topic of popularisation: it involves tales of adventure, exotic peoples and far-flung places, and not a lab coat in sight. Books penned by fossil hunters, such as Richard Leakey’s Origins (1977) and Donald Johanson’s Lucy (1981), do more than simply convey scientific information to the public. They help to legitimise the public profile of palaeoanthropology, allow the protagonists to write their place into history, extend the field of academic battle, and offer a place to speculate about the big questions. The author’s point of view clearly dictates what scientific facts are put before the public, and biases how the reader is meant to understand them.

Judging the veracity of the facts in a popular science book is not easy. Dr. Jon Adams (London School of Economics) explored the boundary between fact and fiction. Fictional devices help to convey facts: they organise content, add interest, and enliven prose. Novels fictionalising science can therefore both entertain and educate and, even when they oversimplify, they can convey important messages. The problem comes when these messages are corrupted. The recent novels of Michael Crichton, such as Next (2006), are a case in point. Such books mix genuine scientific data and convincing fictitious data in a way that makes it hard for the layperson to distinguish one from the other. The jury is still out on the potential threat posed by this intentional blurring of fact and fiction.

Three speakers presented historical case studies of popularisation. Melanie Keene (Cambridge University) described the children’s book The Fossil Spirit (1854) by John Mill, which presents the geological history of the world imaginatively through the fantastic tales of an Indian fakir remembering his many and varied incarnations. Dr Amirouche Moktefi (Strasbourg) analysed The Game of Logic (1887), a book and game devised by the mathematician Charles Dodgson (and published under his better-known pen name of Lewis Carroll), which proved too tedious to be popular and too simplified to be taken seriously. Dr Katy Price (Anglia Ruskin University) discussed the serialisation of Bertrand Russell’s ABC of Relativity (1925) in ‘The New Leader’, the newspaper of the independent Labour Party, and the meaning of relativistic concepts in the context of the labour movement.

Two talks focused on popularisation using pictures. Alice Bell (Imperial College) examined the ways in which scientific concepts can be usefully relayed by cartoons, which are visually engaging, have a readily discerned narrative structure, and are good at conveying causation. Katherine Gillieson (University of Reading) demonstrated the striking illustrations contained within a series of children’s books published by Max Parrish in the 1950s and 1960s, which used Isotype (International System of Typographic Picture Education), a systematic approach to the pictorial depiction of information that influenced the style of the graphics used in newspapers and magazines today.

What can one conclude? Science popularisation has a long history during the course of which a variety of approaches have been tried to make science intelligible. Judging by the presentations at this conference, scientific exposition in written form is clearly complemented by the creative use of stories, characterisation, metaphor, humour and illustration. Unfortunately, what works is not necessarily successful, and what succeeds is not always correct. Nonetheless, the conference did underline that ingenious popularisers have plenty of scope to work inventively with the various tools that help to convey the meaning of science to a lay audience.

EDWARD WAWRZYNCZAK is a freelance science writer based in Surrey