Sunday, September 29, 2013

Science should be popularized

My MOOC Blog, Day 6. So why am I studing science writing anyway? I'm not a scientist, nor a science journalist; I'm barely a journalist at all, despite occasional articles in newspapers. No, I am simply more interested in science and math than the average English major. And I read about science.

Writers who "popularize" science for the rest of us--Lucretius, George Gamow, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, Gina Kolata, Rebecca Skloot--are sometimes looked down upon, but I look up to them all. Science is too important to be left to the scientists. If more writers were explaining climate change and global warming right now, there might be fewer politicians talking nonsense about it.

In 1962, when it was still being said that only a dozen people in the world understood Einstein's theory of relativity, Martin Gardner (1914-2010) brought out a book, Relativity for the Million, that a 10-year-old could read, so I did. My favorite part was about how the Michelson-Morley experiment disproved the existence of the ether wind. 

I also devoured Gardner's books of mathematical games and puzzles, drawn from his Scientific American columns, and The Annotated Alice edition of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which contains hundreds of what may be the most enjoyable footnotes ever written.*

I've been thinking about other books I read as a child. I had absolute permission from my parents to read any book I found, as if they could have stopped me. I seem to have opened up every book in the house, although if it was boring or too far over my head I would put it back down after a few pages. In adult life since I have often started a book and instantly realized that I'd already read the first couple of pages decades before.**

But here's the thing I really wanted to say. Martin Gardner was one of my favorite writers, and he was quite prolific, with dozens of books to his credit. Why have I read only a few? Why haven't I collected them all?

Some readers and many book collectors just "Gotta catch 'em all." Gardner's list would be both achievable and affordable, especially if I opted for "reading copies" instead of first editions in mint condition. I know of a collector who did that for Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, finding every possible edition and translations in every language from 1776 onward.

But that's not how I read or buy. I find a book I like and read it again and again. I have read the entire oeuvre of very few writers I care about, and only if their corpus is relatively small and important. James Joyce? I've read all five books. JK Rowling? Ten out of 11. Isaac Asimov? If anybody in the entire world has read every one of his more than 500 books, I'd like to meet him.*** Or her.**** 

* I have decided that all of my footnotes ought to be extremely entertaining. Sorry about this one..
** There is some dispute about whether there is any such thing as a photographic memory. I read that somewhere. 
***  If you are that person, I will buy you lunch and hear your explanation for this bizarre act of fandom.
**** You also get lunch, but will have even more to explain.

(This essay is re-posted with some revisions from my other blog, Waiting For Hungry.)

No comments: