Field of Science

We need new models of popular physics communication

One of the issues I have with Steven Weinberg's list of 13 science books is that they showcase a very specific model of science writing - that of straight explanation and historical exposition. Isaac Asimov was very good at this model, so was George Gamow. Good science writing is of course supposed to be explanatory, but I think we have entered an age where other and more diverse forms of science writing have made a striking appearance. Straight, explanatory science will persist, but in my opinion the future belongs to these novel forms since they bring out the full range of the beauty and pitfalls of science as a quintessentially human endeavor. And since writing is only one form of inquiry, we also need to embrace other novel forms of communication such as poetry and drama.

Why do we need other models of science communication? The problem is best exemplified by popular physics and that is what I will be writing about here. As I have written earlier, one of the issues with today's popular physics writing is that it has sort of plateaued and reached a point of diminishing marginal returns: there are only so many ways in which you can write about relativity or quantum mechanics in a novel way. There are literally hundreds of books on these topics, and yet another volume that clearly explains the mysteries of quantum mechanics to the layman would not be especially enlightening.

Thus, among the most recent science books that buck this trend is one I have truly savored - Amanda Gefter's "Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn". The book breaks new ground by not just recycling cutting-edge facts about the universe but by presenting these facts engagingly in the form of a very charming memoir about a daughter and a father (disclaimer: although I know Amanda in real life I had been entranced by the book before I met her). Amanda's book is among the very best I know in the "scientific memoir" category, and the particular model that she has pursued in the book - that of a non-scientist determinedly and rewardingly threading her way through the evolution of her own scientific interests - is a very fruitful one which others should emulate.

There is also the more familiar model of the scientific memoir written by leading scientists themselves. The best instance of this that I have encountered is Freeman Dyson's "Disturbing the Universe" which combines a world-renowned scientist's way of thinking with a genuine literary flair. Very, very few people lie at the intersection of "highly accomplished scientist" and "highly accomplished writer", and Dyson fits the bill better than almost anyone else. There is also Laura Fermi's delightful "Atoms in the Family" that provides a rare glimpse into her husband Enrico's human side. Among the other physics/mathematics memoirs that I have truly enjoyed are Stanislaw Ulam's "Adventures of a Mathematician", Marc Kac's "Enigmas of Chance" and Emanuel Derman's unique and timely "My Life as a Quant". Also while we are on the subject of memoirs, a fictional memoir that projects great poignancy is Russell McCormmach's "Night Thoughts of A Classical Physicist" which vividly portrays the resignation of a classical physicist in the face of the destruction of deterministic physics by the indeterminism of quantum theory, even as the political landscape in Germany around him itself is mirroring this destruction.

What I find most striking though is a model of science writing in which science intertwines seamlessly with fiction. I am not talking about science fiction here of which there is plenty - instead I am referring to volumes that explain science through fictional devices and characters. This genre is often called 'scientific fiction' to distinguish it from science fiction. One of the best examples of this style that I know concerns two of mathematician John Casti's books. "The Cambridge Quintet" is a work of scientific fiction that brings five leading thinkers - C. P. Snow, Alan Turing, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Erwin Schrodinger and J. B. S. Haldane - together at Snow's residence for a dinner conversation on artificial intelligence. The other book titled "The One True Platonic Heaven" pits a similar set of fictional but plausible conversations between the brilliant minds at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, this time on epistemology and the limits of scientific knowledge. Both books are gems and deserve a wider audience. 

Another set of fictional conversations between the founders of quantum mechanics is vividly captured by Louisa Gilder's book "The Age of Entanglement". The book is somewhat unfair to Robert Oppenheimer, but otherwise it's unique. And among more recent volumes, one that I have thoroughly enjoyed is Tasneem Zehra's Husain's delightful "Only the Longest Threads" which explores the origins and philosophy of modern physics in the form of letters between two protagonists set against the background of the discovery of the Higgs boson. The book provides a particularly charming example of the human face of science and the beauty of scientific ideas. However, if animals seem more charming to you than human beings, I would recommend two of Chad Orzel's books, one in which he pitches relativity to his dog and another in which the dog has to be at the receiving end of the mind-bending paradoxes of quantum theory.

Then there are the truly fictional works of science enshrined in the form of plays, poetry and even an opera. The opera is "Doctor Atomic" and it's quite unique - I can never get the image of actor Gerald Finley singing John Donne's "Batter my heart, three person'd God" in his baritone voice out of my mind. My earliest exposure to science in the form of fiction though was through Michael Frayn's wonderful "Copenhagen" which charts an imagined set of conversations between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg during a real encounter between the two in September 1941. Frayn's writing is often poetic and he brings out the parallels between principles from physics and the mysteries of human nature without venturing into New Age territory. Another sparkling play along the same lines is Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" which explores the beguiling paradoxes of time and thermodynamics. And speaking of time, nothing I know - absolutely nothing - surpasses the sheer lyrical prose and wondrous temporal constructions in Alan Lightman's "Einstein's Dreams".

Ultimately as we know, a picture is worth a thousand words, so we cannot depart from this brief overview of novel forms of physics communication without mentioning the graphic novel. My favorite is probably "Logicomix" which describes Bertrand Russell's obsessive quest for mathematical truth. Then there is the literally scintillating "Radioactive" which brings Marie and Pierre Curie's love and science to life in truly creative graphical form. Jim Ottaviani has been a particularly prominent proponent of embodying physics in comic book form, and among his creations are my favorites "Feynman" and "Suspended in Science". Jonathan Fetter-Vorm's "Trinity" which is about the first atomic bomb test is also definitely worth your time. In one panel graphic novels can sometimes convey the reality of science as a human endeavor more powerfully than entire paragraphs, and I have little doubt that this medium will continue to serve as a potent form of science writing.

This little tour of the myriad faces of popular physics - physics as poetry, physics as drama, physics as fiction, physics as comic characters - brings out the sheer diversity of incarnations that the story of physics and its practitioners can adopt when being narrated to a wide audience. Together they speak to the nature of physics as something real done by real human beings. The image of popular physics as a set of explanations of the wonders of the cosmos communicated through explanatory writing is a valid one, but there is so much to be gained by embedding this image amidst a kaleidoscopic variety of other forms of science communication. It's something we can all look forward to.

Note: As I was putting the finishing touches on this post I became aware of a post by Chad Orzel on Forbes documenting similar novel forms of science writing. Gratifyingly we both seem to hit on some of the same themes.


  1. Terrific post. Yes we need new models of physics communication. Poetry, drama and novelistic techniques can all play a part. So can science fiction, which often provides thoughtful and dynamic ways into controversies, discoveries and issues in science that may not be of much general appeal when told in normative expository ways. Another modality that's needed is ways of linking physics to wider cultural movements, to show, as it were, its embeddedness of this science in the general social frameworks of art, religion, philosophy and so on. This is what I've tried to do in a series of books that consider physics as a byproduct of, an participant, in our wider cultural matrix. For example, "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace", which traces the history of western scientific concepts of space from Dante to the internet. Cheers, Margaret Wertheim

    1. Thanks for the comment. I loved "Physics on the Fringe" and have recommended it to several friends. I look forward to reading "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace".

  2. Nice list! (although I've never personally liked the graphic novel form, but realize others do). I think we're living in the best time ever for good and varied science writing... many choices, and for those who enjoy the essay form, I'd also recommend John Brockman's edited volume from last year, "The Universe."

    1. Brockman's volume is definitely worth a read!

  3. yeah pop physics is lost in the clouds. but there's so much fresh surprising mesoscale phyiscs people could be finding on the bookshelves... how do snowflakes grow, what are hurricanes? why don't we understand how high temperature superconductors work?

    and instead of higgs boson blah blah blah, why don't we have good stories about the 30 year olympian venture that is the constructing of the cathedral sized swiss watch that is the large hadron collider? where is our feature length film about this mix of science and craftsmanship?

    I think for most of the public quantum theory, cosmology, turn into mysticism!

    1. That's an excellent point. More 'mundane' forms of physics are often neglected in the literature, often ones that cross the boundaries into biology, chemistry and engineering.


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