Popular Science Essay

That desire, they say, ultimately serves as the driving force to see a book through to completion. For starters, writing a popular science book is an endeavor that requires a commitment of time and energy, and an ability to communicate complex concepts, formulas, and ideas in a way that is understandable to--and entertaining for--the lay audience. That way, you can put real science in amongst simpler language." The other method that Wilson uses is to think of himself as standing before a classroom of both scientists and nonscientists, and consider how he would verbally acquaint people with the material.

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"We're always on the lookout for science books," says Leslie Meredith, executive editor at Bantam.

There are two stages to book publishing--writing, editing, and printing the manuscript serve as the first; marketing the product is the second.

Yet there is also a third possibility: The critics may just be on to something.

While authors are frequently advised to ignore bad reviews, Wilson says, "it's dangerous to ignore them.

Quite simply, I love to write." Says Gould, author of Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York, W. Ferris, who does not do research and considers himself a writer rather than a scientist, offers some inside, objective advice: "Scientists need to appreciate the time factor, as well as the fact that writing a mass-market book is most likely harder than what they're used to writing. Try your hand at a short essay and determine if it's enjoyable for you to take complex information and make it informative for, and entertaining to, nonscientists. Determine if you have an ability to use metaphors or other literary techniques, and most important, if you enjoy the process. Write up a proposal, consisting of an overview of what the book will cover, an outline, and a couple of sample chapters. Get a good literary agent who is willing to help you shape the proposal and take the book around to publishers. Once you get a deal, make sure you schedule the appropriate amount of time to do the project. During the writing phase, communicate with your agent and your editor about any problems or difficult passages. Hazen, who is also a professor of earth sciences at George Mason University, says that the most effective approach is to tell stories.

"They need, too, to understand that there's no way the general reading public can really understand a concept unless [the author] can put it in clear, simple language." Indeed, writing a mass-market book is an experiment of sorts in a laboratory very different from the one to which scientists are accustomed. Says Hazen, who is also the coauthor, with George Mason physics professor James Trefil, of Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy (Doubleday & Co., New York, 1991): "People like, and can relate to, and are entertained by stories.Metaphoric devices, she explains, "allow the writer to draw pictures in the heads of the reader that may not be as precise as a scientific experiment, but will lead the reader to a `eureka' experience in reading new thoughts." Publishers look for clarity of expression--verbal as well as written--from potential scientist/authors, Meredith says, as well as a writing style that incorporates metaphors. That's the level that is meaningful to them, and writing about my field--the effects of drugs on behavior--on that level then [makes for] a popular book." Simplifying and popularizing your topic, however, by no means implies that you should write "down" to the general audience.Following are some suggestions from authors and publishers on how to turn your scientific expertise into a book for a popular audience. "What I write for the general public is essentially at the same level as what I write for professional colleagues," says Gould."It's absolutely harder, and an enormous zapper of energy. I just found that I really enjoyed trying to capture the essence of scientific ideas in a way that nonscientists who came for dinner would not just appreciate, but enjoy." Making Science Fun How does one go about making science sound enjoyable? Says Siegel, author of Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise (New York, E. Dutton, 1989) and Fire in the Brain: Clinical Tales of Hallucination (E. Dutton, 1992), "No matter how well I may write a book that details the mechanisms of drugs at a molecular or physiological level, it's going to be boring and read by only a handful of people."Through the use of metaphors and other literary artistry," says Bantam's Meredith. People communicate with each other at a behavioral level, and they interact at a behavioral level.It takes sales of 60,000 copies on average to garner a position on one or more of the bestseller lists, and most popular science books are not likely to sell more than 20,000. Inc., 1981), among others: "Not to sound egotistical or flip, but I do it for myself, and I would suppose any good writer would tell you the same." No Small Task The next point to consider is whether you can, and really want to, expend the effort required to write for the mass market. "One is to embed the fairly hard, technical data into a matrix of general introductory and more simplified explanatory material--much like raisins in a muffin," he says.While there are numerous valid motivations that can impel a scientist to write a book for the mass market, the veteran scientist/authors surveyed for this article cite a strong desire to write as being the most essential for ensuring success. It is certainly not something to be considered lightly, and it's not something every scientist is capable of doing or will want to do. Veteran scientist/authors cite a number of techniques that they say can help ease the transition to popular writing. "Readers are thereby drawn in and can move along easily through the material and are sufficiently attracted to it that they will be able to more willingly endure the technical descriptions."Certainly, it doesn't include the same form of mathematical argument, and it doesn't presuppose knowledge of technical terminology and concepts, but I don't think the conceptual depth is much different." Realities Of The Market One of the appeals of writing a popular science book, says Siegel, is that "you can express yourself a lot more freely.You can editorialize, and go beyond the bounds of your data, more than you can in an academic journal, where you're constrained not only by the journal's format, but by the scientific format." That freedom, however, is bridled on the one hand by one's own sense of responsibility--to present rational and logical evidence in support of the hypotheses presented--and on the other by the realities of the popular publishing world.The unexpected--and unprecedented--success of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes created a big bang of its own in the world of publishing.The Cambridge University re- searcher's textual flight through space and time, published by New York's Bantam Books in April 1988, earned rave reviews the world over and spent 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, ringing up sales of some 1 million copies in its hardcover edition alone.


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