June 22, 2007

Jennifer Ouellette on science writing

SF author John Scalzi interviews blogger and science writer Jennifer Ouellette (The Physics of the Buffyverse) about the art and science of popular science writing. It's a great interview, one that will certainly get me out and looking for a couple of her books; I already follow her blog occasionally so it's incentive to explore further.

A bit from the interview:

It’s not so much that there isn’t a market for books about science; to the contrary, it’s quite a solid niche in the publishing industry, although sometimes “popular” science books are far more technical than the term would lead one to believe. People are fascinated by science, even if they doubt their own ability to understand it. The problem is who is actually reading these “popular” books on science: author Margaret Wertheim (Pythagorus’s Trousers) conducted a survey and found that the vast majority (as in, over 70%) are white males between 40 and 60 with college degrees, usually in the sciences. So it’s a healthy market, but it’s preaching to the converted. There’s a vast untapped sector of the population who will never crack open a copy of The Elegant Universe or A Brief History of Time without being threatened with torture first. The findings led Wertheim to ask a provocative question: who is science writing for? The answer seems to be, educated white men over 40.

That needs to change. I want to reach people like my former physics-phobic self with my books: the people who resist any mention of physics. I’m not trying to make them all eager young physicists, I just think they shouldn’t be afraid of physics – and they certainly shouldn’t assume they can’t possibly understand it. So I tailor my writing accordingly, trying to present physics concepts in a real-world, everyday context, placing science back into our culture at large, rather than treating it as something separate and only for super-smart people. If someone can’t understand a concept as I’ve explained it, I always assure them that it’s not because they’re stupid. It’s because I have failed to communicate it clearly, in terms they can understand. It’s a big challenge, since everyone responds to different frameworks. Some people might love Buffy, others might be more inclined to read The Physics of Star Trek, or The Science of Harry Potter. That’s why the genre has proliferated so extensively.

However, I’m surprised at how much resistance there is to this approach by staunch traditionalists: those 40-something college-educated white males for whom popular science books have always been written. They think there is only one way of popularizing science, and it’s the way that it has always been done. If it was good enough for them, then it should be good enough for everyone else, gosh darn it, and any other approach is simply a useless watering down of a serious subject. They don’t understand that John or Jane Q. Public mostly just wants the Cliff’s Notes version, not all the nitpicky details—which is not to say those details aren’t important, they just aren’t necessary when it comes to broader communication of science.

As you all know, I'm a huge fan of popular science writing and consume a lot of it myself. Of course, I'm in the stereotypical audience that Ouellette mentions.

1 comment:

Dave Bradley said...

Wow my trade got mentioned - science writing - has to be the toughest journalistic beat on the block, but so rewarding.

David Bradley Science Writer