Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Science should be popularized

by Martin Gardner  (1962)
Writers who "popularize" science for the rest of us--Lucretius, George Gamow, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, Gina Kolata, Rebecca Skloot--are sometimes looked down upon, but I look up to them all. Science is way too important to be left to the scientists. If more writers were explaining climate change and global warming right now, there might be fewer politicians talking nonsense about it.

In 1962, when it was still being said that only a dozen people in the world understood Einstein's theory of relativity, Martin Gardner (1914-2010) brought out a book, Relativity for the Million, that a 10-year-old could read, so I did. My favorite part was about how the Michelson-Morley experiment disproved the existence of the ether wind. 

I also devoured Gardner's books of mathematical games and puzzles, drawn from his Scientific American columns, and The Annotated Alice edition of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which contains hundreds of what may be the most enjoyable footnotes ever written.*

I've been thinking about other books I read as a child. I had absolute permission from my parents to read any book I found, as if they could have stopped me. I seem to have opened up every book in the house, although if it was boring or too far over my head I would put it back down after a few pages. In adult life since I have often started a book and instantly realized that I'd already read the first couple of pages decades before.**

But here's the thing I really wanted to say. Martin Gardner was one of my favorite writers, and he was quite prolific, with dozens of books to his credit. Why have I read only a few? Why haven't I collected them all?

Some readers and many book collectors just "Gotta catch 'em all." Gardner's list would be both achievable and affordable, especially if I opted for "reading copies" instead of first editions in mint condition. I know of a collector who did that for Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, finding every possible edition and translations in every language from 1776 onward.

But that's not how I read or buy. I find a book I like and read it again and again. I have read the entire oeuvre of very few writers I care about, and only if their corpus is relatively small and important. James Joyce? I've read all five books. JK Rowling? All seven. Isaac Asimov? If anybody in the entire world has read every one of his more than 500 books, I'd like to meet him.*** Or her.**** 

Next time, more about those who, as the cereal boxes used to say, "Collect the whole set!" and what's the difference between fastidious collecting and obsessive-compulsive disorder.


* I have decided that all footnotes ought to be extremely entertaining. Sorry about this one..
** There is some dispute about whether there is any such thing as a photographic memory. I read that somewhere. 
***  If you are that person, I will buy you lunch and hear your explanation for this bizarre act of fandom.
**** You also get lunch, but will have even more to explain.


  1. The most entertaining footnotes I've come across, which are only slightly more amusing than yours, are in "The Complete Walker, 2nd Edition," by Colin Fletcher. It's a manual on backpacking but even though the gear information is vintage 1973, the writing is so clever, even in footnotes and analyses of camping stove fuel consumption rates, that it's worth reading every word. He's Welsh; maybe that explains it. And your man Gardner hails from where?

  2. You probably read the thing about photographic memory in Moonwalking with Einstein, a nice bit of popular science. Very memorable, in fact. I completely agree with you about popular science writing. I think Carl Sagan did more for our generation than anyone can calculate! I especially enjoy it now that my young teen son and I are reading together. We read popular history of science books last year and it was great food for conversation.


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