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Popular science books, science documentaries bad?

  1. Aug 20, 2013 #1


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    I went through someone's thread asking regarding a popular science book, a considerable time ago. I got the impression that the more knowledgeable members in the discussion did not approve of most popular science books (if my memory serves me right the point mainly was that it gave people the impression of knowing stuff which they didn't). (As it was some time ago so I do not remember the exact discussion,arguments etc).

    So I just want to know what's your view regarding popular science books and documentaries? Good, more bad than good or a fair share of both?
    Last edited: Aug 20, 2013
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  3. Aug 20, 2013 #2


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    There are not so many good popular-science books and even less TV documentaries around, but sometimes there are marvelous gems. One of the best popular-science books I've ever read is Leon Lederman, The God Particle. Despites its idiosyncratic title it's a very good description of elementary-particle physics. If you want to know more about the theoretical side, a very good popular book is on this topic is Frank Close, The Infinity Puzzle. Then there is the classic, S. Weinberg, The First Three Minutes on cosmology. It's still worth to read but a bit outdated given the enormous progress of the field in the last 10-20 years (in both theory and observations). A somewhat less easy piece but also supposed to be a popular book is R. Penrose, The Road to Reality. This is very mathematical, but it's fascinating to learn about a very individuel point of view on (mathematical) physics.

    I'm from Germany, and thus I cannot say too much about TV documentaries in the US. Everything what's produced by the German TV stations is most of the time very lousy, so that I don't watch them anymore. Some years ago the only thing they had to say about the LHC was that it might be dangerous by creating mini black holes eating up the earth! It's so frustrating!

    There is on German/French TV station (ARTE) which produces great documentaries or takes them over from BBC. When lived in the US (Texas) for some years, I loved the science magazine NOVA on my local PBS station.
  4. Aug 20, 2013 #3


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    I can't comment on books but most science documentaries are truly awful when it comes to explaining things. They usually have artist renderings that look nothing like they should, eg "look at this star being eaten by the black hole" type stuff, and tend to focus on what scientists are doing, for example, "Titan is a fascinating moon. Now, thanks to Planet Ranger 3, we have the opportunity to finally determine whether Titan has oceans." Ok, sure, but WHY IS TITAN FASCINATING??? Tell me more about Titan please.

    Surely books are a lot better.
  5. Aug 20, 2013 #4


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    Generally speaking, I think popular science books are great.

    Science is so specialised these days that one of the great hurdles we, as scientists, face is communicating the results of our work and well as the value of those results and the potential of future results to the general public, politicians, and those who support our endeavours. The more people know and understand about science - even if it's just superficial or understood by analogy, the better. Popular science books, magazines, websites, and documentaries are really the best avenues for accomplishing that.

    Occasionally we see posts from people on these forums who have been heavily influenced by popular science books. They've read something that has generated an interest in some of the deep questions the sceintific community hopes to answer - everything from whether or not faster-that-light travel or time travel is possible, to how a universe came to be presumably, from nothing. Often such questions will be what initially drives them to pursue avenues of academic study.

    Sometimes these books can lead to a lay person postulating what to him or her is a new idea, but academically has either been done, or just doesn't fit, or while plausible from an analogy point of view doesn't quite work when you dive into the math. This is, I suspect, where you see the majority of frustration coming from. Some people are just like that - they read one book and all of a sudden, they're an expert.

    Getting rid of popular science books won't get rid of that problem.

    In fact, it just might make it worse.
  6. Aug 20, 2013 #5

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    Like everything else, there are good popularizations and not-so-good popularizations.

    I think the problem is, as Choppy put it, "Some people are just like that - they read one book and all of a sudden, they're an expert." People don't understand than reading a book on physics doesn't turn one into Einstein, just like reading a book on basketball doesn't turn one into Michael Jordan.
  7. Aug 20, 2013 #6
    I think they are good just when you start in physics,but as you dig deeper I find them boring. I'd rather use this time to read some interesting topics in math or physics.
  8. Aug 20, 2013 #7


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    The expected or intended audience for the professors in colleges and universities is very different than the audience for the popular documentaries, and books for the common people.
  9. Aug 22, 2013 #8
    For some reason, physics on tv is ALWAYS space stuff (lots of black holes, worm holes, dark matter, Star Trek stuff), and maybe quantum stuff, focusing heavily on things like wave-particle duality, the usual quantum weirdness.

    They don't seem to talk about angular momentum or fluid dynamics or friction or even e&m.
  10. Aug 22, 2013 #9


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    Speaking personally, my interest in physics started with popular science books. More specifically, books about cosmology and astrophysics. Cosmos, A Brief History of Time, Quantum Enigma, Universe from Nothing, The Elegant Universe and many others all played a big part in inspiring me to major in physics. Honestly, had I not stumbled across my used copy of Sagan's Cosmos, I doubt I would be majoring in physics today. Reading that book woke something up in me, and presented me with some of the greatest questions and mysteries in existence.

    Now that I'm actually a physics major, and I'm formally studying physics, I tend to have little time to read the popular science books. I'm currently reading Kip Thorne's "Black Holes and Time Warps," and thoroughly enjoying it, but it's slow going. I seem to just read a few pages at night before bed, then get too tired to go any farther.
  11. Aug 23, 2013 #10
    I don't think they are that bad. I agree with what is mentioned above: they don't go into very much detail and often focus on exotic details. But I still think it's better than not having any accessible information out there. Particularly for people whose science education ended sometime in high school. Outreach and education at all levels is good.

    They can be a bit unsatisfying as a trained physicist, but I would be lying if I said I can get more out of a journal article about string theory than I can a popular science book about it. Some subjects are just so far away from what you specialize in that it can be difficult to gain any real insight on them. I will also say that I've really enjoyed a few of the books I read on my own field, but that was because they focussed heavily on the history and progression of the field and less on the scientific details.
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