Off the page

Books used to be one of the only ways the public was exposed to science. In the age of the internet, have they lost their place on the shelf?

 
 Illustration by  Sarah Nagorcka

Illustration by Sarah Nagorcka

 

This is an editorial for Issue 18 by Lateral editor-in-chief Jack Scanlan, who still feels weirdly guilty about not reading as many physical books as he used to.

My current love for science largely came from wandering the long, poorly lit aisles of my local library as a child, picking heavy books off the shelves in the science section and thumbing through the pages. If one looked interesting, I’d put it in my basket to take home. Sliding a book back into its gap on the shelf was a rare occurrence, and by the time I got to the end of the aisle, my forearm would be sore where the plastic handle of the basket was anchored by gravity.

Between the ages of seven and 13, when most of these library trips occurred, it was typically the aesthetics of these books that drew me in. There’s a certain strain of science text that has impressively detailed illustrations of their concepts, somehow better than any photo could ever be. The astronomy and astrophysics books were particularly stunning in this regard, with various types of stars, planets, galaxies and — most strikingly — black holes rendered in bright, hyper-real colours. Books about molecular biology and biochemistry had their charms as well, displaying winding DNA helices and complex tangles of protein with such visual interest that it was all I could do to avoid spending hours alone in my room, imagining what lived inside my body. If only I had a powerful microscope handy, I might have been able to explore the world inside myself. It was all infinitely interesting.

Around this time, I avoided all the popular science paperbacks, which offered little but a solitary illustration on the cover (if I was lucky). But once I grew old enough to want to sit down to read hundreds of pages of nothing but words, other pop-science formats were catching my eye instead. Magazines, long a major method of casual science consumption in the US and other western countries, were an obvious next step. New Scientist was filled with photos and even some fun, metaphor-inspired illustrations too. But Newton, a short-lived magazine published by Australian Geographic, was my favourite for as long as it was around. I still wonder about the kids and young adults who might have been persuaded to give science a second chance if they had stumbled upon a copy in the newsagent in the 15 years since it went out of print.

Let’s be clear, however: those kids probably aren’t lacking for engaging science content. While colourful books and magazines are still around, videos and podcasts are the formats of the modern age. YouTube channels with impressive production values and a tone pitched just right for a 12-to-24 year-old demographic pump out fantastic videos about science at a pretty steady pace. Podcasts debunking myths and telling stories continue to go from strength to strength online. And it’s all free.

Where does the pop-science book fit into this new landscape? People my age or younger have clearly missed the importance these paperbacks played in the popularisation of science in decades past. For every glossy reference text that occupied my time as a kid, there were — and still are — dozens of books explaining everything from DNA to the microbiome to autism. Bookstores, particularly the really good ones, are loaded with them, so people must be buying them. But who?

The obvious answer is “people who read books” — aka typically middle class people with disposable income. Shelling out $30 or more for a book isn’t a luxury available to all, and due to internet-based science media, it’s not a requirement in order to get your fix of chemistry and maths. There’s something very 19th-century, at least to me, about sitting down to read a book about science in your leisure time. You can almost hear the crackling coming from the fireplace.

From another perspective, pop-science books still have a great deal of prestige attached to them. Any emerging science writer would jump at the chance to pen one; it carries a lot of weight to say that you’re a published author, not simply a writer. But is a book the best medium to get science across to the public? Should it become obsolete, as the rising tide of the internet fails to lift every boat?

Broadly speaking, a typical pop-science book is a long-form argument as to why the average person should care about a particular scientific concept or group of concepts. The good ones are breathlessly exciting and pull you into a world you didn’t know existed, showing off a side of your life that had somehow passed you by. But the bad ones can be turgid collections of words that drag you to the bottom of a sea of jargon, depriving your brain of oxygen as they attempt to demonstrate how you’re clearly not cut out to be a quantum physicist. What the length of a book can add to the potential of understanding a topic in great detail, it can also detract from comprehension and accessibility.

Books work for certain ideas, for certain stories and in certain situations. You can explore scientific ideas while enjoying a particular writer’s unique style and way with words. And there are few things better than sitting down on a holiday and devouring most of a pop-science book on a lazy afternoon. You’re learning and relaxing. You’re not wasting a moment of your life. Great stuff.

But the truth is simply that a lot of people don’t read many books, if any, and as such books hold much less science communication sway than they did a couple of decades ago. The young people subscribing in the millions to science YouTubers are proof enough of that. What audiences might be reached with a truly comprehensive science media landscape? What new stories might be told through science-based poetry, science-based songs and science-based art?

At the moment there is a huge cultural emphasis on getting science into popular books, but other formats need to be explored equally as deeply. We need more video and podcast content supported by the scientific community, we need more high-quality science journalism in the mainstream media, and yes, we need more online science magazines. At Lateral, we hope that every person who wouldn’t read a 300-page pop-science book would take a few minutes each day to read about science in a more accessible format, if given the opportunity. Science deserves to be enjoyed by everyone.

The science book isn’t dead, it’s just a part of a larger landscape of communication now. No format becomes obsolete if people still enjoy and pay for it.  

By Jack Scanlan

Jack is the Editor-in-Chief of Lateral.