What Can Popular Science Books Teach Us?

I have a background in physics, including a Ph.D., 20 years of research experience, and 10 years of university teaching. Despite all of that background, I can still enjoy and learn from a well written popularization of physics. A good example is Brian Greene’s, Elegant Universe, which attempts to explain the beauty and possibilities of string theory. I have wondered what someone who does not have my background might get out of such a book. Clearly they will get less, but since the book was a bestseller they must be learning something.

I think I have begun to understand what an intelligent but non-expert reader might learn from a popular science book, when I read Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean B. Carroll. The book discusses recent developments in evolutionary development biology. I took a variety of things from this book. It is the first book where I recognized the science in biology in the same that I see science in physics. Carroll talks about the geometry of an embryo. Biologists have been able to learn how different genes operate in different parts of an embryo to make the parts of the fully grown animal. There are even pictures of frog and fruit embryo showing stripes. These stripes correspond to structures in the adult animal.

I was left with two questions after that section. One is how is the gene action turned on only in the correct places? The other is how did they get it colored? The first is a very fundamental question of science, while the second is about experimental technique. Being an experimental scientist I find both questions interesting.

Clearly, a well written popular science book can impart useful information even if it cannot make us all into practicing scientists. I will continue to read books about biology and other sciences as well as physics books. My daughter is a sophmore majoring in biology, so we will have something to discuss over Thanksgiving vacation.

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