Some time last year, a colleague asked about good examples of popular science books, in order to read and thereby to get inspiration on how to write books at that level, or at least for first-year students at a university. I’ve read (and briefly reviewed) ‘quite a few’ across multiple disciplines and proposed to him a few of them that I enjoyed reading. One aspect that bubbled up at the time, is that not all popsci books are of the same quality and, zooming in on this post’s topic: not all popsci books are of the same level, or, likely, do not have the same target audience.
I’d say they range from targeting advanced interested laypersons to entertaining laypersons. The former entails that you’d be better off having covered the topic at school and an undergrad course or two will help as well for making it an enjoyable read, and be fully awake, not tired, when reading it. For the latter category at the other end of the spectrum: having completed little more than primary school will do fine and no prior subject domain knowledge is required, at all, and it’s good material for the beach; brain candy.
Either way you’ll learn something from any popsci book, even if it’s too little for the time spent reading the book or too much to remember it all. But some of them are much more dense than others. Compare cramming the essence of a few scientific papers in a book’s page to drawing out one scientific paper into a whole chapter. Then there’s humor—or the lack thereof—and lighthearted anecdotes (or not) to spice up the content to a greater or lesser extent. The author writing about fungi recounting eating magic mushrooms, say, or an economist being just as much of a sucker for summer sales in the shops as just about anyone. And, of course, there’s readability (more about that shortly in another post).
Putting all that in the mix, my groupings are as follows, with a selection of positive exemplars that I also enjoyed reading.
- Advanced interested layperson level: Predictably irrational by Dan Ariely (behavioural economics) and Entangled life by Merlin Sheldrake (microbiology, on fungi).
- Average interested layperson level, where the books are less effort to read than the ‘advanced’ ones: Why we sleep—the new science of sleep and dreams by Matthew Walker (human physiology, neuroscience), Inside rebellion—the politics of insurgent violence by Jeremy Weinstein (organisational psychology), Delusions of gender—the real science behind sex differences by Cordelia Fine (neuroscience; reviewed a while ago).
- Lower end of interested layperson level, i.e., definitely easier to read than the previous category and therewith more so in the pastime range: Gastrophysics—the new science of eating by Charles Spence (physics; which I wrote about before), Standard deviations—flawed assumptions, tortured data, and other ways to lie with statistics by Gary Smith (statistics), Mama’s last Hug—animal emotions and what they tell us about ourselves by Frans De Waal (animal cognition).
- Entertaining the layperson level: A short history of drunkenness by Mark Forsyth (history) and Elephants on Acid by Alex Boese (bizarre experiments; reviewed earlier).
There are more popsci books of which I thought they were interesting to read, but I didn’t want to turn it into a laundry list. Also, it seemed that books on politics and society and philosophy and such seem to be deserving their own discussion on categorisation, but that’s for another time. I also intentionally excluded computer science, information systems, and IT books, because I may be differently biassed to those books compared to the out-of-my-own-current-specialisation books listed above. For instance, Dataclysm by Cristian Rudder on Data Science mainly with OKCupid data (reviewed earlier) was of the ‘entertainment’ level to me, but probably isn’t so for the general audience.
Perhaps it is also of use to contrast them to ‘bad’ examples—well, not bad, but I think they did not succeed well in their aim. Two of them are Critical mass by Phillip Ball (physics, social networks), because it was too wordy and drawn out and dull, and This is your brain on music by Daniel Levitin (neuroscience, music), which was really interesting, but very, very, dense. Looking up their scores on goodreads, those readers converge to that view for your brain on music as well (still a good 3.87 our of 5, from nearly 60000 ratings and well over 1500 reviews), as well as for the critical mass one (3.88 from some 1300 ratings and about 100 reviews). Compare that to a 4.39 for the award-wining Entangled life, 4.35 of Why we sleep, and 4.18 for Mama’s last hug. To be fair, not all books listed above have a rating above 4.
Be this as it may, I still recommend all of those listed in the four categories, and hopefully the sort of rough categorisation I added will assist in choosing a book among the very many vying for your attention and time.
Pushing the envelope categorising popsci books
Regarding book categories more generally, romance novels have subgenres, as does science fiction, so why not the non-fiction popsci books? Currently, they’re mostly either just listed (e.g., here or the new releases) or grouped by discipline, but not according to, say, their level of difficulty, humor, whether it mixes science with politics, self-help, or philosophy, or some other quality dimension of the book along which they possibly could be assessed.
As example that the latter might work for assigning attributes to the books: Why we sleep is 100% science but a reader can distill some ideas to practice with as self-help for sleeping better, whereas When: the scientific secrets of perfect timing is, contrary to what the title suggests, largely just self-help. Delusions of gender and Inside rebellion can, or, rather, should have some policy implications, and Why we sleep possibly as well (even if only to make school not start so early in the morning), whereas the sort of content of Elephants on acid already did (ethics review boards for scientific experiments, notably). And if you were not convinced of the presence of animal cognition, then Mama’s last hug may induce some philosophical reflecting, and then have a knock-on effect on policies. Then there are some books that I can’t see having either a direct or indirect effect on policy, such as Gastrophysics and Entangled life.
Let’s play a little more with that idea. What about vignettes composed of something like the followings shown in the table below?
Then a small section of the back cover of Entangled life would look like this, with the note that the humor is probably inbetween the ‘yes’ and ‘some’ (I laughed harder with the book on drunkenness).
Mama’s last hug would then have something like:
And Why we sleep as follows (though I can’t recall for sure now whether it was ‘some’ or ‘no laughing matter’ and a friend has borrowed the book):
Of course, these are just mock-ups to demonstrate the idea visually and to try out whether it is even doable to classify the books. They are. There very well may be better icons than these scruffy ‘take a cc or public domain one and fiddle with it in MS Paint’ or a mixed mode approach, like on the packs of coffee (see image on the right).
Moreover: would you have created the same categorisation for the three examples? What (other) properties of popular science books could useful? Also, and perhaps before going down that route: would something like that possibly be useful according to you or someone you know who reads popular science books? You may leave your comments below, on my facebook page, or write an email, or we can meet in person some day.
p.s.: this is not a serious post on the ontology of popular science books — it is summer vacation time here and I used to write book reviews in the first week of the year and this is sort of related.