Speaking of Science

The Scienticity Blog

Archive for January, 2011


Selecting a Popular-Science Book to Read

Posted by jns on January 6, 2011

Recently I was contemplating answers to potential questions prior to a brief interview (I’ll give a link if it shows up someplace linkable) I gave about our Science Book Challenge. One question that came to mind, one for which we try to provide one answer with our collection of science-book notes, is “How do I choose a popular-science book that I might like to read?”

It’s an important question. I want to encourage people to read about science, but I really want to encourage people to read something that they will enjoy, something that will speak to them and leave them feeling refreshed with new ideas. What value is there is reading something that just doesn’t speak to you? It may fulfill some false notion of virtue but it’s not going to open anyone’s mind to the idea that science is something that can speak to them with pleasure and profitable learning.

Here’s a simple algorithm I came up with that I truly believe will work well for most people. In addition to helping a reader locate a potential rewarding book, it has the virtue of introducing the reader to a librarian — librarians are great people to get to know! — and of encouraging the use of one’s local library, a valuable resource perennially in danger of withering from community neglect.

  1. Go to your library.
  2. Ask a librarian to show you where the science, or math, or engineering books are.
  3. Look along the shelves for a book with a title that interests you, or one with a funny author’s name, or one with an interesting picture on the cover or an attractive color on the spine. This isn’t as random as it sounds–you’re pulling out a book that already has something appealing to you.
  4. Open the book to some page near the middle and read a few paragraphs to see whether the way the author writes is agreeable to you. It doesn’t matter at this point whether you understand any of the ideas the author might be writing about. Rather, it’s to get an idea whether you can stand to listen to this author talking to you for the next 200 pages.
  5. Check out the book and start reading it. If it doesn’t engage you — for any reason whatsoever! — stop reading it, take it back, and try another one.

The basic ideas here are to start anywhere but start now, and not to let the books intimidate you–you get to judge the books, the books don’t get to judge you.