Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Virtual Particles are the New Vampires

I've always considered myself something of a science buff, mes auteurs (although I find actually doing science, complete with statistics and differential equations, too taxing for my literary sensibilities), so I was surprised and delighted to read this article in the Telegraph about the recent rise in popularity of popular science books.

As noted in the article, if people were buying popular science books five or ten years ago, they were largely about evolutionary biology (and all the "religion versus science"-type arguments those books seem to entail). Recently, however—and, in my opinion, due in large part to physics projects like the Large Hadron Collider—popular science books about astrophysics, quantum mechanics, and parallel universes have seen unparalleled demand (pun totally intended). Books about evolution, biochemistry, and other scientific disciplines are selling, too, but it's the physics behind the structure, origin, and fate of the universe that seem to be intriguing The Reading Public these days.

I've been into popular physics since at least the late '90s, reading and re-reading Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time, The Universe in a Nutshell, A Briefer History of Time), Carl Sagan (Pale Blue Dot, The Demon-Haunted World, Billions and Billions), and Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe, The Fabric of the Cosmos), so while this trend may be new to a lot of people, it isn't for me (although I am, again, surprised and delighted). I will say I'm glad that more people are reading Asimov and Hawking, even if it doesn't balance out the number of people reading Stephenie Meyer and The Situation.

What I'm interested to know is: is this new and/or surprising to you, bros and she-bros? Do you regularly read popular science, and, if not, do you think you'll start doing so? Will you pick up a copy of The Grand Design or Why Evolution is True in the coming weeks or months? If so, why? If not, why not?

Bonus question: if a train leaves Boston at 5:00 pm traveling in a straight line toward Tallahassee at 90 MPH, and another train leaves Tallahassee at 7:00 pm traveling in a straight line toward Boston at 120 MPH, how long will it be before I fall asleep?


  1. Right alongside all my literary blogs is the Discover Magazine update feed, which gives me a data dump of their blogs and updated news articles all at once.

    I was a physics major my first year in college, then I discovered I liked writing science fiction more than doing the actual science. I was less intrigued by the "hows and whys" than I was by the "what ifs?" I think that a firm grounding in real science is important in science fiction, however. If you break too many laws of physics, then you're leaving sci-fi and entering in science fantasy territory.

  2. Strangely, I think it is the proliferation of bad TV that accounts for the rise in pop-sci sales. Networks like Discovery who are offering an alternative to the unmitigated crap present on summer network schedules are getting people interested. It helps that the science programming is getting more interesting and better produced, as well. Morgan Freeman narrating The Universe was superb. Shows like Sci-Fi Science and Bad Universe are introducing viewers to real scientists. The Mythbusters are doing extreme experimentation that is very appealing to someone whose other option is to watch Toddlers and Tiaras or yet another family of dwarves making their way in the big mean world.

    I don't watch much TV but I like thinking that better sales make better books so.... GO TV!

  3. Why, yes, yes I am intrigued by popular science books. Have read Hawking, Sagan, Asimov, etc.

    I wonder what the other versions of me are doing in the parallel universes. Hope it's a little more exciting than what's been happening over here lately.

    Which train are you on?

  4. I have been dabbling in things like Quantum Physics and Cosmology for many years. The "hook" for most of my writing has to do with concepts from these areas.

    I agree completely with Catherine. The science should be accurate. It should be presented in such a way that the reader enjoys themselves and gets a better understanding of the science involved.

    And as to the answer to your question, you left out one important factor. Do you travel with an iPod or iPad?

  5. I don't think the sale of science books has to do with the general population being smarter or asking questions - I think it has to do with the number of fantasy and sci-fi writers out there who need to do research.

    As for the train - which destination is home? You always fall asleep faster on the way home.

    because it comes with pictures and sound effects.

  7. I have to admit that I don't read a lot of popular science because I read a lot of hard science as part of my day job -- I'm an HIV researcher. I also read a lot of scientific texts and journal articles as part of my writing so I have to admit that I get a little burned out on it by that point. I'm thrilled, however, that so many are finding something worthwhile in popular science because there is a lot of really fascinating stuff out there!

    As far as your train question goes, how fast you fall asleep depends on how close you are to your stop, because it never fails that you doze off just in time to miss your stop! ;)

  8. It doesn't matter which train you are on, because a train leaving Boston for Tallahassee and traveling IN A STRAIGHT LINE, or vice versa, will go off the track within 300 yards and crash.

  9. So falling asleep is not an option!

  10. Sleeping on a train depends on the quality of the seats and lack of entertainment. Comfy chairs and boredom induce sleep.

    I love science, both popular and arcane. Add ancient philosophies, superstitions and cultural histories. Stir. Bake at 350 until crusty on top.

  11. I am sick to death of hearing about creationism. It's so not an issue worth discussing.

    I've always been a physics fan. Use your smarticles; study particles!

  12. I'm not into sicence journals but find quantum phsics riviting. I gave a talk on the topic about 15 years ago to a quasi-religious group and was told I had their minds spinning for days.