Best selling science

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The Independent Culture
IN THE BAD old days, the idea of a scientist speaking at a book festival would have been unimaginable. But times have changed. My own first excursion on to a platform in front of literary aficionados was in Cheltenham several years ago. I'm sure that that particular festival was not the first to entertain the idea of mixing scientists with novelists, gardening and cookery experts, poets, historians ... There we were, in the town hall, laying out our wares before a respectably sized audience in an atmosphere of excitement and no-holds-barred curiosity that was, for me at least, quite new.

I now feel less of a Pollyanna and much more of a seasoned campaigner. Festivals bring you into contact with people whose orbit my much narrower research life would never bring me. At Brighton, for instance, I took part in a debate with Simon Singh, author of Fermat's Last Theorem and Tim Radford, science editor of the Guardian, on what makes a good science book. What most clearly emerged as important was the telling of a good story. The astonishing success of Dava Sobel's Longitude was, we decided, in partly due to its combination of a scientific discovery with a personal story, in particular a story of struggle against all odds.

Now science at festivals has become the norm. The literary public is eager for reader-friendly science books and the highly appropriate comparison has been drawn between the 19th century popularity of travel writing, with science writing of today. After all, in Victorian times, it was difficult for most people to journey beyond the nearest town, let alone a new country, and especially not beyond Europe. Travel writing was a second-hand but nonetheless effective way to make those distant lands accessible.

As an increasing number of science books line our shelves, so the public is becoming ever more sophisticated and informed in its tastes. Consequently, books can now be sold under two distinct banners: those that give a lay introduction to a field, and those that promulgate a new idea. Both types are needed, and it is unfortunate when a comprehensible and comprehensive survey is taken to task by specialist reviewers for not teaching them, as atypical experts, anything novel. Similarly, a lean monograph developing a clean and clear bottom line, does not necessarily need to be weighed down by an exhaustive, scholarly review.

This variety in type of book added to the wide range of subject matter will surely inspire a much wider constituency in the science community to start tapping at the keys. This would not only provide the voracious lay reader with more fodder, but also assist in the development of a clearer line of presentation and explanation than has been the case. In turn, a less jargon-riddled and forgiving writing style will impact not only on literary excursions, but also on the way scientists present, and thus how they ultimately think about, their research. To this end, schemes such as that sponsored recently by the Wellcome Trust with HarperCollins - where cutting edge scientists, who have not written a book previously, are bank-rolled to do so - are to be encouraged.