# Do popular science books help at ALL?

I've come to relise that some of dogmatic science posts sometimes posted in this forum is from non-mathematically based comments based from books like 'The elegant universe' etc.

While these books do help enlighten the public of 'recent' theories, it also makes the overall audience think they are now 'armed' with masses of array of scientific knowledge ( i.e. more than they knew before).

To be on the safe side, i just binned all popular science books i have.

My question is based on the validity of the comment above: Are science books really helping at all? Or are they just feeding the public too generalized comments on very complex science theories (or developing theories) and thus, making them undermine those theories?

My opinion: Not much.

Another question might be: Are they doing more good than bad? To which I'd answer: No.

ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
I've come to relise that some of dogmatic science posts sometimes posted in this forum is from non-mathematically based comments based from books like 'The elegant universe' etc.

While these books do help enlighten the public of 'recent' theories, it also makes the overall audience think they are now 'armed' with masses of array of scientific knowledge ( i.e. more than they knew before).

To be on the safe side, i just binned all popular science books i have.

My question is based on the validity of the comment above: Are science books really helping at all? Or are they just feeding the public too generalized comments on very complex science theories (or developing theories) and thus, making them undermine those theories?

It really, truly depends on what one uses the books for. Most people that I know read those books simply to have a clue of what the topic is about, without any pretension that they're actually learning the subject matter. For that purpose, those books are useful.

However, for people who have the self-delusion into thinking that they are actually learning all there is to know about the subject matter from such books, then these books are not useful at all. And in fact, I would go on to say that these books, when used by these people, will create more harm than good. It is where a little bit of knowledge that is mistaken for a sufficient/complete knowledge is dangerous, not to mention, annoying. We have seen way too many examples of that both on here and in real life.

Zz.

The popular science books really have more of a motivational impact on me. It inspires me even more to study all of these new things that, before, never really came up in my mind. In this manner, they are useful.

They still are no supplement for textbooks though, afterall, science is empirical and not literary.

mezarashi
Homework Helper
I've come to relise that some of dogmatic science posts sometimes posted in this forum is from non-mathematically based comments based from books like 'The elegant universe' etc.

While these books do help enlighten the public of 'recent' theories, it also makes the overall audience think they are now 'armed' with masses of array of scientific knowledge ( i.e. more than they knew before).

To be on the safe side, i just binned all popular science books i have.

My question is based on the validity of the comment above: Are science books really helping at all? Or are they just feeding the public too generalized comments on very complex science theories (or developing theories) and thus, making them undermine those theories?

To your last statement: Not at all. In my opinion, every theory has an easy down to earth explanation. And that anybody who understands a theory well enough must be able to explain it without the mathematics.

Mathematics is just a formal treatment for the highest level of consistency, precision, and compatibility (with other theories). If you truly understand the theory through its qualitative meaning, it is only a matter of training in the proper mathematical tools to understand it quantitatively. I think people who think that someone doesn't really understand a "complicated theory" because he doesn't understand how to do tensor calculus is being plain condescending. (Maybe it took him/her much effort to understand, and such he or she doesn't want to share being on the "same level" as another "lesser being". Alot of academics do take this stance.) The only thing I'm worried about is that the lack of quantitative review makes it easy to think you understand something when in fact you don't. Solving a math problem will easily verify whether you understand a theory correctly.

Nonetheless, without the formal mathematics, there is very little you can do to advance the theory or participate in the applications of the theory. But then again who expects to become a rocket engineer by reading such books. As with any other book you read, reading science "literature" helps you open the mind. Why do people read philosophy and strangle each other with debates? Learning is a kind of enlightenment in my opinion, and everything you learn helps build you into a better person.

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russ_watters
Mentor
ZapperZ said:
However, for people who have the self-delusion into thinking that they are actually learning all there is to know about the subject matter from such books, then these books are not useful at all. And in fact, I would go on to say that these books, when used by these people, will create more harm than good. It is where a little bit of knowledge that is mistaken for a sufficient/complete knowledge is dangerous, not to mention, annoying. We have seen way too many examples of that both on here and in real life.
That said, the self-delusional type is likely to continue the self-delusion with or without the pop-sci books. If they don't get it there, they'll find their food somewhere else (ie - the internet).

I am in the awkward position where the pop books don't have enough, but the in-depth texts are above my current level-- I don't know calculus, and therefore can't read the equations to understand what the write is trying to convey. :grumpy:

I see a lot of oversimplification, dumbing down of material, and I will put a book down if I spot a common fallacy represented as gospel.

Have you picked up a grade-school textbook lately? It's absolutely horrendous what they pass off as educational literature... it more of an MTV Power Point than a learning tool.

Phobos
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
I'm all for books that encourage the public to be interested in science. Same goes for science documentaries. I think the good greatly outweighs the bad. This is assuming that the dumbed-down science is at least accurate, of course. I'm certainly against the many examples of pseudoscientific books/TV that try to pass off as science.

I think it's pride. And the unhelpful kind at that. Not everyone is a physicist. Not everyone understands college-level math.

Physics isn't all just equations. A big part of it is understanding the personal ramifications of those equations. For example, you know to slow down when you're turning on a rotary because your tires only supply so much friction force. You know to not put a fork in a microwave because charge builds up on the tips and generates air-ionizing voltages. You know that an ambulance just passed by because the doppler shift caused the siren to drop in pitch. All these things are based on equations and yet we don't need to think about the equation to understand how it affects us.

Now granted, many pop-science books, like The Elegant Universe, discuss things that don't have much ramification to our daily lives. However, things like Relativity and Quantum Mechanics do change the way we look at the universe. Go up to a person and say, "Hey! Did you know that $$m=m_0\gamma(v)$$? Wow!" That just doesn't mean as much to an average person as saying something like - "If you're on a disk that spins really fast, such that on the part where you're standing, you're travelling near the speed of light, then if you were to measure the circumference using a tape measurer and stringing it around the disk, it would be shorter than if you were to measure the radius and use the circumference formula." That has a direct ramification and is, in essence, a real and important part of physics. Sure, the person may not know the exact equation, but face it - physics is an esoteric science that requires an understanding of mathematical formulation above that any regular person would need. That is, people don't need to know the equations unless they need to know the equations. That doesn't mean, however, that the conclusions of physics need be esoteric.

If there are people who think that physics should be some sort of elitist field where only the people who know high level math can revel at the beautiful conclusions that physics has on our universe, then fine - they can burn their books. I, on the other hand, would gladly prefer a person read a pop-science book than place all his/her understanding of the universe on, say, religion.

The bottom line is - if people are truly interested after reading a pop-sci book, they will research and understand its formalisms. If they refuse to research and post crazy theories, well then the real physicists will know and point that out. Real theories are not so easily undermined. Those people don't represent real physicists. Real physicists know the rigor of physics. There's no need to defend its integrity.

mezarashi
Homework Helper
Well said Jelfish, well said.
:)

ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
Jelfish said:
I think it's pride. And the unhelpful kind at that. Not everyone is a physicist. Not everyone understands college-level math.

Physics isn't all just equations. A big part of it is understanding the personal ramifications of those equations. For example, you know to slow down when you're turning on a rotary because your tires only supply so much friction force. You know to not put a fork in a microwave because charge builds up on the tips and generates air-ionizing voltages. You know that an ambulance just passed by because the doppler shift caused the siren to drop in pitch. All these things are based on equations and yet we don't need to think about the equation to understand how it affects us.

Now granted, many pop-science books, like The Elegant Universe, discuss things that don't have much ramification to our daily lives. However, things like Relativity and Quantum Mechanics do change the way we look at the universe. Go up to a person and say, "Hey! Did you know that $$m=m_0\gamma(v)$$? Wow!" That just doesn't mean as much to an average person as saying something like - "If you're on a disk that spins really fast, such that on the part where you're standing, you're travelling near the speed of light, then if you were to measure the circumference using a tape measurer and stringing it around the disk, it would be shorter than if you were to measure the radius and use the circumference formula." That has a direct ramification and is, in essence, a real and important part of physics. Sure, the person may not know the exact equation, but face it - physics is an esoteric science that requires an understanding of mathematical formulation above that any regular person would need. That is, people don't need to know the equations unless they need to know the equations. That doesn't mean, however, that the conclusions of physics need be esoteric.

If there are people who think that physics should be some sort of elitist field where only the people who know high level math can revel at the beautiful conclusions that physics has on our universe, then fine - they can burn their books. I, on the other hand, would gladly prefer a person read a pop-science book than place all his/her understanding of the universe on, say, religion.

The bottom line is - if people are truly interested after reading a pop-sci book, they will research and understand its formalisms. If they refuse to research and post crazy theories, well then the real physicists will know and point that out. Real theories are not so easily undermined. Those people don't represent real physicists. Real physicists know the rigor of physics. There's no need to defend its integrity.

The problem here is that you are misinterpreting the importance of these so-called "equations". Would it make sense if I tell you that mathematics is a language of communication of ideas? The language isn't important. It is the idea that is the focus here. So then why can't we use ANY old language, such as English, Chinese, Urdu, etc? It is because these languages would make physics become AMBIGUOUS and undefined. In many instances, I can only describe the physics in terms of examples or analogies. This is far from conveying the complete idea. The language becomes the barrier. This does not happen when the idea is expressed mathematically. In writing

$$\nabla \cdot E = \rho$$

I have COMPLETELY described the electrostatic field of ANY charge distribution. Period! And it isn't must an equation either. Most physicists read mathematical expression the way a musican read musical notes. We don't see mathematical symbols, we see the idea represented by mathematical symbols. When you read these words, hopefully you don't just see a jumble of letters, but the idea that I'm trying to communicate to you. That is what an "equation" is in physics - a complete description of an idea in physics. There is no other way that we know of to communicate such ideas clearer and more accurately than that.

So that's the "Physics isn't just all equations" part. Now let's go back to this elitist thing. Notice what I said earlier regarding one's purpose of such books. I clearly stated that most people that I know of read the book for "entertainment" purposes, and not as a primary source of physics. I'm assuming that this was clear when I stated that. That means that the only problem I have with such books would be when it is misuse. Now, is this an isolated incident and really do not require the rest of the physics community to be concerned about? Maybe, but maybe not. I have seen people read about the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics from pop-sci books and webpages and use this to argue against the validity of Evolution. Books like the Dancing Wu Li Masters and The Tao of Physics are being used in COLLEGE classes. Or go visit any philosophy discussion and see them argue that an 'electron' doesn't exist! But the BIGGEST challenge as the result of the bastardization of physics comes from the post-modernist movement that have hijacked various concepts in physics based on superficial understanding and used it as part of their world view. It because SUCH a problem that it caused Alan Sokal to expose them as the frauds they are with his infamous hoax in Social Text.

So yes, REAL and VALID theories CAN be undermined. The public cannot distinguish between FACTS and STYLE and is often seduced by the latter. I have seen this personally during the Brookhaven debacle of the late 90's, and we are continually seeing this in the evolution debate.

Zz.

loseyourname
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
There is science other than physics, you know. In the case of qualitative, non-mathematical sciences, like paleontology, geology, wildlife zoology, and conservation ecology, popular books can be a great resource for the layperson.

ZapperZ said:
It really, truly depends on what one uses the books for. Most people that I know read those books simply to have a clue of what the topic is about, without any pretension that they're actually learning the subject matter. For that purpose, those books are useful.

However, for people who have the self-delusion into thinking that they are actually learning all there is to know about the subject matter from such books, then these books are not useful at all. And in fact, I would go on to say that these books, when used by these people, will create more harm than good. It is where a little bit of knowledge that is mistaken for a sufficient/complete knowledge is dangerous, not to mention, annoying. We have seen way too many examples of that both on here and in real life.

Zz.

what i can't stand is television shows that use technical medical/legal/scientific/etc terms & make the viewers think they're learning. i guess not all viewers would think that but when i see shows like those i always imagine that the writers had in mind a show where the viewers would feel like they were becomin part of some elite club by just by watching. i can see how that would appeal to many people i guess...

Non-quantitative science

loseyourname said:
In the case of qualitative, non-mathematical sciences
There is no such thing as a qualitative, non-mathematical science.
stthomasu.ca/~jgillis/bio.htm

--
Cattell further points out that “the split in psychology itself between scientific, quantitative, and experimental personality research and humanistic (or to give the latter the benefit of the doubt) the journalistic, math-evading verbal theorizing, is now at last fully on the surface and admitted”.
[...]
Cattell conjectured that the solution may be the breakaway from what may continue to be called, “psychology of, on the one hand, psychonomic and multivariate experimentalist societies, united in scientific objectivity if not in ancestry, and, on the other hand, of so-called humanistic psychology. The latter may continue to advance its own way for great novelists and will meet the perennial need of journalists to talk to the general public about psychology”.
--

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loseyourname
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
There is no such thing as a qualitative, non-mathematical science.

There isn't a science that is entirely qualitative, but there are certainly parts of sciences that are. Taxonomy, for instance. Some of my favorite popular science books from childhood were simply qualitative descriptions and names of dinosaurs, with brief stories describing what they may have been capable of and how they may have behaved. Some of my other favorites were qualitative descriptions of different astronomical phenomena, with perhaps maps and names of some of them.

There may be a basic misunderstanding here. There is likely no such thing as a scientific process, or enquiry, that is non-quantitative. But there are certainly scientific facts that are not.

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My question is based on the validity of the comment above: Are science books really helping at all? Or are they just feeding the public too generalized comments on very complex science theories (or developing theories) and thus, making them undermine those theories?

Personally i think pop-sci books help!

Yes they do give generalized comments on complex therories, but the author is bound by the fact the the book he/she is writing is a popular science book, if they give too much detail they limit their audience, limit the number of sales and hence arent going to make much money, and we sadly live in a world were the majority of people are only concerned by making money .

For me, Im glade that there are people out there willing to write these books and risk the ridicule of the profetional scientific community. I have been reading pop-sci books for the last +5 years, first as pure entertainment but the more i read the more questions they raised. The books opened my eyes to the fact that we live in a place that is much larger than the communities in which we work and the world upon which we stand. These books awoke a passion that i had as a boy of 6, that across time i had forgot about, (i was a keen all be it very amateur astronomer then).

A few years ago i was heavily reading pop-sci books and at the time i was unfulfilled in the the work i was doing, I had developed a basic understanding of some physical ideas and made the (very hard) decision to quit a very well paid job working in the city, to go back to uni and read physics in an attempt to fill in the blanks left by my readings.

Im now about to start the second year of my degree and am enjoying the expreince more than anything i have even undertaken. I am finding that the books i have read have enabled me to gain a basic understanding of the aspects of physics i am now studying, allowing me to focus more of my time on understanding the relevant maths and terminology that i need to know, giving me a deeper appreciation of the topic.

So yes, they can help even if it is only to make the general public think about science, but if people are ignorant enough to think that pop-sci books are all there is to science then these people arent all that clever to start off with!

ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
What you have described is EXACTLY one of the function in which these pop-sci books can be very useful. It can be used to inspire people to learn MORE. Or, be used to give a flavor of the nature of the science involved. These are what these books are very good for. For such purposes, I highly recommend them.

Unfortunately, and this is the part that no one can control (so I'm not blaming the authors of these books), they are also being used as a primary source for a lot of people, some of them even the so-called "intellectuals". This is why I said way in the beginning of my first response in this thread that the usefulness of such books DEPENDS very much on what people are using them for.

Again to steal Integral's quote, there is a difference between learning physics, and learning ABOUT physics. These books are exellent material to learn ABOUT science or physics, but they make a poor source for LEARNING science/physics. A lot of you know this difference, but many more out there don't.

Zz.

arildno
Homework Helper
Gold Member
Dearly Missed
ZapperZ said:
Unfortunately, and this is the part that no one can control (so I'm not blaming the authors of these books), they are also being used as a primary source for a lot of people, some of them even the so-called "intellectuals".
Isn't it rather tiresome with pundits who go about believing (and, even worse, saying in public) that
a) they have understood the philosophical "essence" of new physics by having read, say, "The Elegant Universe"; and
b) that the scientists themselves are unable to grasp the big picture and can only work out the minor, inessential, details of physics?

This type of arrogance is all too common in certain branches of the humanities..

ZapperZ
Staff Emeritus
arildno said:
Isn't it rather tiresome with pundits who go about believing (and, even worse, saying in public) that
a) they have understood the philosophical "essence" of new physics by having read, say, "The Elegant Universe"; and
b) that the scientists themselves are unable to grasp the big picture and can only work out the minor, inessential, details of physics?

This type of arrogance is all too common in certain branches of the humanities..

I was in the audience when Steven Weinberg described the encounter he had on a plane sitting next to a person who said he (that person) has read Hawking's A Brief History of Time. That person said it was the best, and clearest book on physics that he has ever read. Weinberg told the audence that he only nodded, because he personally thought that A Brief History of Time was one of the most difficult books to read and understand.

Zz.

I own these "Pop Sci" books as well. The ones I have are The Elegant Universe, A Brief History of Time, The Universe in a Nutshell, and a couple others (One on a FSL theory and one on the Constants of Nature).

We're all very different creatures, each of us. Some people find it stupid to read books that spell things out in words. Some people find it extremely hard to pick up a physics text and automatically absorb everything. As far as I know, the people who can do that are usually left brain dominant, and I myself am very much in the extremity of right brain dominant (spatial, linguistic, artistic). You know? I have to read up on these things in such a context before I can jump to equations so I know exactly what's going on. It helps create a much more vivid mental picture for me.

Besides, I happen to think Hawking has a great sense of humor. His books are so easy to read and convey the messages to me pretty clearly.

Diencephalon said:
I own these "Pop Sci" books as well. The ones I have are The Elegant Universe, A Brief History of Time, The Universe in a Nutshell, and a couple others (One on a FSL theory and one on the Constants of Nature).

We're all very different creatures, each of us. Some people find it stupid to read books that spell things out in words. Some people find it extremely hard to pick up a physics text and automatically absorb everything. As far as I know, the people who can do that are usually left brain dominant, and I myself am very much in the extremity of right brain dominant (spatial, linguistic, artistic). You know? I have to read up on these things in such a context before I can jump to equations so I know exactly what's going on. It helps create a much more vivid mental picture for me.

Besides, I happen to think Hawking has a great sense of humor. His books are so easy to read and convey the messages to me pretty clearly.

And the universe in a nut shell has pitures too

My favourite books are It "Must be Beautiful, Great Equations of Modern Science" edited by Grahma Farmelo, "Six not so easy pieces" and "The Charater of Physical Law" both by, the late great (and my idol) Richard P. Feynman

ZapperZ said:
I was in the audience when Steven Weinberg described the encounter he had on a plane sitting next to a person who said he (that person) has read Hawking's A Brief History of Time. That person said it was the best, and clearest book on physics that he has ever read. Weinberg told the audence that he only nodded, because he personally thought that A Brief History of Time was one of the most difficult books to read and understand.

Zz.

I find this to be the case as well. Science books don't make complex theories more clearer at all to me, maybe even more difficult. 'The elegant universe' does not make anything clear to me, other than maybe the history of science.

zanazzi78 said:
And the universe in a nut shell has pitures too

My favourite books are It "Must be Beautiful, Great Equations of Modern Science" edited by Grahma Farmelo, "Six not so easy pieces" and "The Charater of Physical Law" both by, the late great (and my idol) Richard P. Feynman

Oh wow how could I ever forget Feynman!? I have like four of his books. They're pretty awesome, he's also my idol