In the time since I last updated this blog, well over a year ago, quite a lot has changed. My palaeobiology degree feels like it has atrophied over the last five years and I was beginning to feel as though a future with any sort of science in it (other than simply reading about it in the news) was becoming increasingly distant. Then, just a few weeks ago, I found out that one of the local universities had an MSc in Science Communication, so I applied. I figured that doing it part-time would be the best option financially, so I’ve got two years which will hopefully bring out the passion for science communication I once had (the last year or so has mostly consisted of vaguely keeping up with progress in science, whilst also occasionally telling people on the Internet why they are wrong). I’m already getting the itch to write, so I am off to a good start.
There is no reading list for my course. Instead, I’ve decided to make myself a list of books to read which I think could really complement my studies and might be useful for anyone else interested in science writing or any other form of science communication. I could recommend excellent popular science books which are worth reading simply because they are brilliant, but that is a decent topic for another post.
The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing – Dawkins (Ed)
What better way to become inspired to produce good quality, if not excellent, science writing than reading one of the best science writers expressing their passions? With The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, you are given much more than just one of the best, you are treated to the best across a diversity of fields. Richard Dawkins, a superb science communicator himself, has collected dozens of excerpts which he has curated into four sections expressing What Scientists Are, What Scientists Study, What Scientists Think, and What Scientists Delight In. It will surely spark the imagination for any budding science writer and should prove to be a valuable resource.
A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bryson
Good science writing often requires taking complex, jargon-riddled concepts and translating them for a wider audience without distorting the message or diluting beyond recognition, all whilst making sure not to condescend the audience. Bill Bryson is a travel writer who set out to educate himself, and eventually others, about science in a way which was accessible – a big step up from the science he learnt in school. I’ve chosen this book partly because I feel like I should have already read it, but it should also serve as a strong example of how to communicate science effectively.
For What Science Is
The Demon-Haunted World – Sagan
The purpose of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World was to show how science functions, how to recognise valid science and how to recognise pseudoscience. The subtitle is, appropriately, “Science as a Candle in the Dark”. Any science communicator needs to have a strong grasp of what science is and how to recognise it, so I’ve chosen Sagan’s book with the hope that I might be able to learn from a master.
Unweaving the Rainbow – Dawkins
I’ve already mentioned that Richard Dawkins is a superb science communicator, I could recommend a number of his books, but I have chosen this one because it seems like essential reading for any science enthusiast (and because I haven’t yet read it). Dawkins addresses and rebuts the claim that science diminishes our wonder at the natural world by explaining how things work – a rainbow is no less magnificent because we understand the science behind it, but is arguably even more awe-inspiring. It’s a feeling which I expect Dawkins to express beautifully and with which any science enthusiast will agree.
For the Bad Science
Bad Science – Goldacre
Although The Demon-Haunted World likely covers a lot of useful information on identifying pseudoscience and poor science journalism, I’ve chosen to include Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science as it takes a look at a range of poor science. We all have our blindspots within science and our ability to spot the rubbish can always do with being fine-tuned. Science writers have a responsibility to ensure that they are accurate and are not propagating unscientific nonsense.
Why People Believe Weird Things – Shermer
In Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer tackles pseudoscience and superstition, areas of misunderstanding with which science writers can expect to butt heads (it’s anti-evolutionists which I personally come across the most). Understanding why people believe such bizarre things and how to identify their lies is another necessary skill, which this book should bolster. As a bonus, you get a foreword by one of the most talented science writers – the late Stephen Jay Gould.
The Elements of Style – Strunk and White
It’s no use studying up on your chosen area of science, learning how to translate it for a popular audience, discovering how to identify and refute pseudoscience, if you can’t write. The Elements of Style has a reputation for being one of the best references for getting to grips with the English language and a must-read regardless of what topic about which you intend to write. Handily, it is quite short too.
Whilst searching for images and other information for this post, I stumbled across some other books which might be useful additions to this list. If I manage to find time to read through the books that I’ve mentioned, I might move on to reading some of the following:
A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers – Eds. Blum, Knudson, and Henig
Investigating Science Communication in the Information Age: Implications for Public Engagement and Popular Media – Eds. Hollman, Whitelegg, Scanlon, Smidt, and Thomas
Science Communication: A Practical Guide for Scientists – Bowater and Yeoman.
The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age – Eds. Nijhuis, and Hayden
Science Blogging: The Essential Guide – Eds. Wilcox, Brookshire, and Goldman
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century – Pinker