Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Ban popular physics books

  1. Dec 4, 2008 #1
    or at least print them with a disclaimer on the front : these do not actually teach you anything.

    I don't understand why people think they have any idea what abstruse theoretical physics is about after reading one of those.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 4, 2008 #2


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    give me a few examples of the books you're talking about.

    If you're list includes Brian Greene's "The Fabric of the Cosmos" then say no more.

    (Ok, I will admit his discussion about Newton's bucket in the beginning is very interesting)
  4. Dec 4, 2008 #3
    Let's ban my Physics book for college :biggrin:

    It sucks!!!!!!!!!!!!
  5. Dec 4, 2008 #4
    It definitely teaches them about physics or astronomy, but it doesn't teach you how to do it.

    In the situation where you have someone mouthing off about physics which is clearly BS that they misinterpreted from a pop-sci book, it is your duty to knock them down a peg with "Can you derive that for me?" or something similar, like "But those operators don't commute!" That will surely incite the fight or flight response in the person. And since that person happens to read pop-sci books, it's probably not the fight response.

    Bonus points if you **** blocked the guy too.
  6. Dec 5, 2008 #5
    Why do people read love stories ? They are so tasteless compared to real life !
  7. Dec 5, 2008 #6
    depends which ones
  8. Dec 5, 2008 #7


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    I don't think you should make such general sweeping statements. Some popular science books are actually very good!
  9. Dec 5, 2008 #8
    such as?
  10. Dec 5, 2008 #9


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    Big Bang by Simon Singh, The trouble with physics by Lee Smolin, to name but a few of my favourites. I think popular science should be encouraged, at least popular science written by real scientists. There are many people who are not able to get into physics or any other science, for several reasons, but who are still interested in the subject. Such popular science books provide a way for the layperson to find out what is going on in the world of science. In my opinion, outreach should be encouraged as a way to try and make scientists less disjoint from society in this sense.

    I note you haven't actually told us which books you are talking about...
  11. Dec 5, 2008 #10


    User Avatar

    Cosmos - Carl Sagan; Asimov's New Guide to Science - Issac Asimov; Does God Play Dice - Ian Steward. To mention a few.

    These books all give a good general overview of the subjects they address.

    It seems the OP is suggesting that it is somehow wrong to tell someone falling from a cliff will kill you without the listener knowing how to perform calculus, which imo smacks of rather silly intellectual snobbery.

    Many people have a passing interest in science with no interest in the details. They just 'want the baby not the labour pains' :biggrin:
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 5, 2008
  12. Dec 5, 2008 #11
    At Auburn, we have an introductory course without labs, or any math whatsoever. We call it "physics for poets". I don't think these books are all bad. I could think of worse books that could be burned.
  13. Dec 5, 2008 #12


    User Avatar

    I remember reading about relativity when I was 8, obviously it was RE the twin paradox and very simple and half nonsence, but I loved it.
  14. Dec 5, 2008 #13

    George Jones

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    The Cosmic Frontiers of General Relativity by William J. Kaufmann; Deep Down Things: The Breathtaking Beauty of Particles Physics By Bruce A. Scumm.

    These books are not substitutes for real, introductory books like Hartle and Griffiths, but they're meant to be. Art and literature can be appreciated by people who are not art and literature critics; (at least some) scientists should write books for a non-science audience. Also, banning science books for the educated public could have real consequences, i.e., it could lead to a reduction in funding.
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2008
  15. Dec 5, 2008 #14
    If you get rid of popular physics, then physics won't be popular. No future physicists. And . . . no future funding. Reckon the folks who funded the LHC knew the basics of string theory?
  16. Dec 5, 2008 #15
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 24, 2017
  17. Dec 5, 2008 #16


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    In Search of Schrodinger's Cat, by John Gribbin
  18. Dec 5, 2008 #17
    It's pretty petty to consider intellectuals as part of an elite club. With the alarming decline of intellectualism in America, we need to do everything we can in order to encourage people to think about reality. I don't think of these popular science books as presuming to teach people science, but rather as a subset of philosophy, and I hope that the people who read them think of the books this way also.
    This debate is quite similar to the ones about guitar hero vs. real guitar or wii sports vs. real sports. When I play wii tennis, I never have a moment of doubt that I am playing a video game, yet it also encouraged me to start playing real tennis; Certainly not a bad thing.
    This is not to say that there don't exist people who do believe that they are learning rigorous science; just the other day when we were learning about conceptual relativity I heard someone remark "were learning all of relativity in this class and it's real hard and mathematical". But, as people have said before, these people will delusion themselves regardless of what field they "study", and if you wish to be rude, you can stop them easily by asking them what a contra variant vector is.
    If you have pride in what you do, you will have it regardless of whether people choose to delusion themselves or not.
    Also, some of these books are very good for those learning about a subject; for example, the book the heart of mathematics is very non-rigorous, yet it taught me some really useful problem solving techniques and so when learning about the fundamental theorem of arithmetic (and the irrationality of sqrt(2)), which my teacher presented in a different manner, I had a conceptual basis and two methods for proving these theorems. Conceptual preparation can be half the battle in learning a subject; I would be willing to wager that a person who had read a conceptual science book would be quite a bit better prepared for a subsequent rigorous course in the subject.

    P.S. WarPhalange: I think there is a quote which may apply to your "game": "Praise in public, correct in private" Publilius Syrus.
  19. Dec 5, 2008 #18
    We watch the news even though it is mostly a bunch of BS opinions. This nation depends on public illusion. The public doesn't need to be accurately informed so long as they are satisfied. When the public starts demanding more mathematics in popular physics books, then someone will provide it.

    Otherwise, if people get a kick out of using their imagination, whether or not they are focused in reality or are going to contribute anything to society, let them have there fun.

    It isn't like real physics grads are always right. How many used to think there was no quantum vacuum and now we know there is. Even those who relied on no math at all had the idea that there was, and yet those who felt they were superior acted like gods and belittled the very idea.
    Last edited: Dec 5, 2008
  20. Dec 5, 2008 #19
    Yea, there are some terrible pop-sci books; there are terrible textbooks too. there are terrible books on anything.

    but unless you've got a PhD in every subject matter that remotely interests you, or are working towards one, you've most likely read a simplified version of something... medicine, biology, history, geology, music, politics, the news, literature, etc. etc.
    Either that, or you have no interests outside your field of study.

    Some books are stupefied instead of simplified, which irks me too, or use magical Disneyland sort of language. But there are excellent ones out there too.
  21. Dec 2, 2010 #20
    Ban popular-science books? Where does that even begin to you, OP? With anything other than 'text books'?

    So complete ignorance amongst the general public is something to strive for?

    Are you so advanced in all topics that you would snicker at those silly plebeians reading about cetacean communication in a paperback? How about pre-historic plants?

    Do historical science books count as "popular science books" if they attempt to include some sort of summery of the subject they are covering? IE: A book covering the development of the atom bomb through WWII discussing physics in brief? The reader is interested in history, but has learned something new about physics at the same time. How is this a bad thing?

    EDIT: Holy crap I just became a thread-necromancer of the highest degree, I didn't realize. Sorry!
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook