Do you still find popular science books to be enlightening?

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Simfish
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I don't know - but all sorts of famous physicists seem to give high reviews to many of the newest popular physics books - such as Stephen Hawking's most recent book. They all say that they enjoyed reading them. Maybe it's just that many of them have also taken steps to become educators and popularizers?

Yet, when I open up the pages of books like his, I almost always encounter material I already know - material I know from reading popular physics books years ago. Sometimes people put in more entertaining treatments and better analogies. But I don't feel like those are important enough to warrant reading popular physics books again (when there's so much else to do).

So what do other people feel about this?
 
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  • #2
Pythagorean
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For me, wikipedia is superior to pop sci books, and textbooks are superior to that for when you want an overvew or a conceptual basis.

A wiki of textbooks would be superior to all.
 
  • #3
lisab
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One good reason to read them is so that when people find out that you're a scientist and excitedly say, "Oh I read that book by (physicist's name) about (black holes, expanding universe, koi fish, whatever), it was wonderful!", you can then say something about the book.

Otherwise you have to say, "I haven't read it," and they walk off thinking to themselves, "I can't believe a scientist hasn't read that book! What in the world to they teach at those universities?!"

But, erm, no I rarely read them anymore :redface: for the reasons you mentioned.
 
  • #4
AlephZero
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I guess the previous posts are from physicists.

As an engineer my professional work is entirely based on "classical" physics and Newtonian mechanics (though it does include 20th-century topics like dynamical systems, fractals, etc). Yeah, I did course on QM once, but I've never used any of it since since then. I read pop sci for pleasure, mostly borrowing from those old-fashioned institutions called public libraries that we still have in the UK, rather than buying the books).

I don't like Hawking's writing style much, compared with say Dawkins, Steven Jay Gould, Simon Singh on math, etc.

Actually some of the "classic pop sci books" by people like Eddiington, Hoyle and Gamow are still worth a read, if you stumble across them, if only to see how fast things change. (It's only 30 years since people were writing pop sci about climatology and discussing when the next cycle of the Ice Age would kick in...)
 
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Pythagorean
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I guess the previous posts are from physicists.

As an engineer my professional work is entirely based on "classical" physics and Newtonian mechanics (though it does include 20th-century topics like dynamical systems, fractals, etc). Yeah, I did course on QM once, but I've never used any of it since since then. I read pop sci for pleasure, mostly borrowing from those old-fashioned institutions called public libraries that we still have in the UK, rather than buying the books).
I don't know, I don't use QM at all either in my research, only classical physics. Griffiths is a great introductory text (that you might have used for your QM class) and you can use that and journal articles and wikipedia and physicsforums to enrich your understanding of QM. I guess my problem is otherwise, you tend to run into a lot of sensationalism.
 
  • #6
cobalt124
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From a laymans perspective I agree with much of what is being said. Before Wikipedia (and now PF) my only avenue to learn was popular science, and I read lots up until the late nineties. I can't remember why I stopped reading it, possibly the shelves were saturated with the stuff and a lot of it wasn't any good. You can only state a finite number of concepts a finite number of ways so there must be a lot of repetition and sensationalism. Also as concepts get more difficult to understand so will writing an account of it that is accesssible to a layman. I use Wikipedia for my popular science reading.
 
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I'm certainly not a physicist, though I'm a pretty serious amateur astronomer. But whenever I read a popularization of a topic I know well, I tend to enjoy it.

I tend to seek out the best and simplest (yet correct) explanations I can. I like to try and make sure my understanding of things is as clear as possible, and yet, as I think Einstein said: ".. as simple as possible, but no simpler." I'm sure I'm not quoting it right, but you get the idea.

It also helps me explain things better to others. Astronomy is one of those topics where a lot of people express an interest, or have questions to ask. So it's helpful for me to work on improving my explanations.

The real art of so many things is not in making it more complex, but simplifying. I'm a software developer (among other things), and a truly great programmer is one that can take something complex and simplify it, yet not oversimplify. When I see a programmer take a bunch of hard to follow code and reduce it to something simple and readable, I know I've met a very good one.

Hope that was both clear and simple, without oversimplifying. :biggrin:
 
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I don't know - but all sorts of famous physicists seem to give high reviews to many of the newest popular physics books - such as Stephen Hawking's most recent book. They all say that they enjoyed reading them. Maybe it's just that many of them have also taken steps to become educators and popularizers?

Yet, when I open up the pages of books like his, I almost always encounter material I already know - material I know from reading popular physics books years ago. Sometimes people put in more entertaining treatments and better analogies. But I don't feel like those are important enough to warrant reading popular physics books again (when there's so much else to do).

So what do other people feel about this?
I like to read good popularizations by respected physicists (mostly physics, but other fields also) that talk about things that I haven't studied. I like to think that it's all connected, somehow. Maybe you take away from it a different way of thinking about something in your specialty (or, if you're not a working physicist, the stuff you've been focusing on). Maybe not. But, in any case, I find it interesting to learn how various scientists might explain their work and their world views in more or less ordinary language.

Popularizations are very fast reading, mostly. So it isn't as though it's a great infringement on one's time.

And just because Hawking, since the OP mentioned him specifically, is an amazing human being I'm open to anything he has to say about anything.
 
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For me, wikipedia is superior to pop sci books, and textbooks are superior to that for when you want an overvew or a conceptual basis.

A wiki of textbooks would be superior to all.
I do not use wikipedia for most things. Usually when concerning topics of a scientific nature I use university-based webpages or blackwell. They tend to give a better perspective, otherwise, I just buy the textbook if I want more information.
 
  • #10
cobalt124
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Quote Grep "Astronomy is one of those topics where a lot of people express an interest, or have questions to ask"

Astronomy may be an exception to my objections, as it has a large, knowledgeable amateur base and so might benefit from a saturation of popular science books. I would think Astronomy would be easier to write as poplular science than most other subjects.
 
  • #11
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I think it varies greatly book to book. I read some popular neuroscience books. I think this is a little different then physics since, comparatively, neuroscience is still in its infancy, the pace of discovery is fast (but takes a lot of wrong turns) and different models, conceptual frameworks, and speculations based on experiments can all be interesting to read about to get a sense of a larger still undiscovered picture. But the quality from book to book varies immensely. Some repeat what I think are overly simplistic ideas over and over again to form a coherent thesis for the book. Others are filled with information I already know. But some have fascinating insights, and genuinely surprising and new approaches.
 
  • #12
arildno
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Even if you have far-above-average knowledge about science, you might still get something out of some pop-sci books:

1. The joy of reading a well-written book.
in this case, you learn about as much from it than from a good novel, but at the very least, time passes by in a pleasant manner.

2. Filling in holes in your knowledge.
By seeking out popular science books engaged in themes you do not know very well, it can be an excellent first resource. Your prior science training might help you interpret correctly something an author is breezy or cryptic about.

Thus, the more science you actually know, the more selective should you be towards what books you ought to read, focusing on the well-written once, that can be an inspritational source for you, also in your humdrum life as a scientist.

Reading Dawkins, for example, is sheer pleasure; not the least due to his command of the British language..
 
  • #13
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Lol to me, popsci books either

1. Talk about speculative pseudo-science and the "future".
2. Attempt to convince you of the "legitness" of well-accepted science like evolution, as if you should be in serious doubt.
 

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