# The common practice to not put equations in pop science books

1. May 7, 2012

### robertjford80

I want to take this time to really speak out against the current practice of not including equations in pop science books. This is nonsense. If you read a standard pop science book there will actually be quite a lot of jargon. Anyone who can handle that heavy amount of jargon can obviously handle an equation here and there. I like to understand natural phenomena in terms of equations. If I see an odd phenomenon I like to reduce it to an equation. My favorite example is why does the cork fly off an empty champagne bottle when put next to a fire. Easy, the ideal gas equation, temperature goes up and so too does the pressure, since the volume is held constant, PV = nRT. I'm rereading Davies' the Cosmic Jackpot. The first time I read it I understood maybe 33% of it, this time around I understand 80% of it but that's because I've got about an additional 500 hours of physics training. Anyone who's had 500 hours of training can obviously understand an equation. It's not equations that make pop science books difficult, it's the jargon and the concepts.

2. May 7, 2012

### Office_Shredder

Staff Emeritus
Is this supposed to be a reason why a book marketed for the general population should have equations?

3. May 7, 2012

### robertjford80

The point is the books are written with a very high level of jargon. Anyone who can command that level of jargon can obviously understand a simple equation.

4. May 7, 2012

### zoobyshoe

I think the average person's brain goes dead when they see an equation. It's perfectly alright to print, " Newton determined that the force is equal to the mass times the acceleration." If, however, you print, "F=ma", the average reader will go blank.

It doesn't matter that the formula means the same thing as the words. That extra deciphering is viewed as an imposition, like expressing dates in Roman Numerals; it seems like a conceit.

5. May 7, 2012

### Jimmy Snyder

The rule of thumb when writing is that you lose half your readers for each equation you use.

6. May 7, 2012

### robertjford80

Yea, and that's the rule that I think should be gotten rid of.

7. May 7, 2012

### robertjford80

Maybe, but the average person's brain (mine included) certainly goes dead when it comes across a new term that it does not understand. And pop science books are littered with them.

8. May 7, 2012

### Mark M

People read popular science books in the first place because they don't want to put 500 hours into training in physics and mathematics. Someone may have no higher mathematics training whatsoever, but had their interest piqued by, say, black holes. I don't think this person would be as interested if you just threw metrics at them. If you have the experience, you might as well read technical literature.

Oh, and remember that pop science books are written, at the end of the day, to get sales. So, is it worth losing all of the readers that get turned off by equations just to please a few?

9. May 7, 2012

### StevieTNZ

If the jargon is properly explained, you really don't need equations.

10. May 7, 2012

### robertjford80

Not true, I remember real vividly what's it's like to read a pop sci book with very little training because I was there not too long ago. You, on the other hand, it might have been so long ago that you don't remember. It get's to a point where you're just overwhelmed by new concepts that it just becomes a blur.

11. May 7, 2012

### Jimmy Snyder

Do you mean get rid of the rule, or get rid of the reality that the rule encodes?

12. May 7, 2012

### Pythagorean

I've thought about this before. Writing a book with the gimmick being "with equaitons!" so that people can buy it and put it on their coffee table and be like "yeah... I have the smart person's version of this lay book... yup!" even if they never read it.

13. May 7, 2012

### Office_Shredder

Staff Emeritus
So write a pop science book that uses equations and prove that you can successfully communicate to everyone. Just because you find it easier doesn't mean everybody does

14. May 7, 2012

### Pythagorean

In Search of Shcrodinger's Cat used a couple of equations. I always thought it was an excellent laymen book as a laymen.

15. May 7, 2012

### robertjford80

When you say

you're just assuming you're right. I don't accept the premise of your question. That reality that you talk about, does not exist.

In any case, this thread stirred up more of a debate that I thought it would and I've got some studying to do, so I will say good bye.

16. May 7, 2012

### Ryan_m_b

Staff Emeritus
There are two main reasons why popular science books are not text books:

1) They are meant to take a complicated topic and presented it in a simplified yet understandable format to the layperson.

2) To a large extent popular science books are not meant to teach people to become scientists; they are meant to fulfil point 1, raise interest and entertain.

Now given that the average layperson has minimal mathematics and physics training it is far more likely that they would respond to written language than equations. Indeed you gave an excellent example of this itself: the ideal gas equation, temperature goes up and so too does the pressure, since the volume is held constant. All it would take is an example (like your champagne), a metaphor (probably along the lines of groups of people/objects moving fast in a confined space and bouncing off of each other) and possibly an illustration and you've conveyed a relatively complicated concept and conveyed it in a simple and entertaining way.

Some people may indeed want to know the equations but these will be a small minority of the readership and they can go on to read a text book if they are really that interested. In summary adding equations to popular science books would not help fulfil their purpose and may even detract from it by removing the accessibility and entertainment from the experience. Conversely however you are more likely to eventually get some people to tackle the equations at a later date if you manage to get them interested and understanding the basic concepts through popular science.

On a general note I think everyone at some point has to be aware of possible projections of their own values and interests with respect to their field onto other people. I don't have a name for this but it's something prevalent amongst the computer industry; for many years individuals and companies approached computer science with the philosophy that people should learn more about how their computers work. In reality most people don't want and importantly do not need to waste their time learning about how their computer works, they just need it to work and to have an easy, intuitive and fun interface. The only company I can think of that has really embraced this is Apple, one of the few companies that understood that people just want black boxes with artistic controls and there's nothing wrong with that. With respect to this thread most people don't want and don't have to learn mathematics or physics, there is little benefit to self and society learning beyond concepts.

17. May 7, 2012

### leroyjenkens

The problem with putting equations in the book is you have to explain what the letters mean. They could put pv=nrt, put below that what each of those letters represents (and then maybe having to go more in depth to explain n, and especially r), and then expecting the reader to do some algebra to show the inverse proportionality.
Or they could explain it how you did in a few words.

18. May 7, 2012

### zoobyshoe

I've read a few pop-sci books and in my experience they explain all the new jargon in depth, from scratch, on the assumption the reader has no prior knowledge. "One, Two, Three...Infinity!" by George Gamow is the book that comes to mind. You don't need to know anything to start with to understand it.

19. May 7, 2012

### Staff: Mentor

Please, don't start inserting equations into my pop science books. If I want to learn the Math I will pick up the college textbook on the subject. My pop science books teach me the general idea of the subject without forcing me to bash my head against a wall with math. Besides, do you have any idea how hard things like functions and stuff are to those of us with no training? I don't even understand what a function is!!

20. May 7, 2012

### Ryan_m_b

Staff Emeritus
+1.0 Well said, neither do I. An anecdote that comes to mind related to this discussion is a conversation I had with friends a little while ago where I had to look up order of operations to show them that when faced with an equation you work out the multiplications before the subtractions. Some people may scoff at this but I found nothing strange about their ignorance. They're all highly educated people (most of them are family/criminal lawyers) but haven't had to formally study maths in nearly 10 years.

Last edited: May 7, 2012
21. May 7, 2012

### Staff: Mentor

The issue, in my opinion, is that you can easily explain the subject using words 99% of the time. There are occasionally a few equations that are nearly necessary to understand, such as E=MC^2 and such, but the overwhelming majority of the time the math is completely unnecessary and detracts from most people understanding the book. And I assure you that my brain quite literally "shuts down" as soon as my eyes hit 99% of math in these books. I completely skip over it usually, as I rarely need to use it.

22. May 7, 2012

### Jack21222

I read a popular science book (Beyond Smoke and Mirrors, a book on global climate change written by Nobel prize winning physicist Burton Richter) who put some equations and technical information in the book, but kept them over in optional side bars. So, if you were interested, you could slog though them, but if not, you could skip them and take the author's word for it.

I think that's a pretty good system.

23. May 7, 2012

### Jimmy Snyder

I didn't make the rule, I just quoted it. I don't know whether they were making an assumption, or were speaking from experience as publishers of books.

You're just assuming you're right.

24. May 7, 2012

### Curious3141

So what did you think of Penrose's "The Road to Reality"?

I believe that's considered pop science. The title seems to fit the genre. But I sincerely doubt that the average layperson, even with a keen but casual interest in Physics will be able to understand that book completely.

25. May 7, 2012

### Pythagorean

you're just assuming he's assuming.

Meta-assuming!