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Where are the chemistry popular science books?


by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 
A rarity - Sam Kean's
popular title


An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm that the only conscious negative bias is my lack of enthusiasm for medical titles. I would love to include more good popular chemistry titles - but I don't see many. 

Another clear opportunity for editorial selection is at the commissioning stage. I spoke to several publishers and their feelings suggested that the number of books reviewed reflects a wider issue. Duncan Heath is Editorial Director of UK publisher Icon Books. Asked if he felt that chemistry was under-represented, he commented ‘As an editor who has worked on numerous popular science books, my sense is that, yes, the first things that spring to mind when thinking of popular science are essentially physics in the broad sense (e.g. particle physics, space travel, astronomy an relativity) or biology (e.g. epigenetics, evolution and life in the universe). It’s not to say that chemistry isn't involved in those things, but it doesn't feel like it's the main attraction, the leading feature.’

Academic publisher Oxford University Press probably features more chemistry titles than most for an audience at the technical end of the popular market. Senior editor Jeremy Lewis, who has worked with the American Chemical Society on a publishing partnership, echoes Heath’s thoughts. ‘I do think chemistry is under-represented in popular science. When you go to the bookstore, the small science section usually has an even smaller chemistry shelf. I think chemistry tends to just fly more under the radar when there are “sexier” breakthroughs in disciplines like physics and biology – topics such as quantum theory and genome modeling.’

I was also interested to know if the editors felt that the lack of popular chemistry titles reflected a weakness in the subject or a lack of submissions. Heath: ‘It does feel unsexy and so would need to come with a “killer” proposal to get commissioned. It would have to try harder to overcome that perception.’ Lewis believes there should be more opportunity: ‘I do think there are areas of chemistry that would sell quite well and we just haven’t seen the right proposals. Food chemistry is one area, and using pop culture to explain chemistry (think the Physics of Superheroes, but with chemistry) is another. Finding writers that can convey science in an understandable way to the general public can be a challenge, and that’s another reason why finding the right proposal (and author) is key.’

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) has been aware of visibility concerns for some time and undertook a study to get a better feel for public perception. The results were, in part, encouraging. In an article on the study written for Nature, Chiara Ceci from the RSC commented that ‘public attitudes to chemists and chemistry are much more positive than my colleagues and I would have dared to hope. Our views of public opinion are too negative.‘ However, we can’t rest on these particular laurels.
The positive aspect was that study found that ‘the public does not fear or misunderstand chemistry.’ Such negativity was a realistic concern for the profession, bearing in mind the practice of considering ‘natural’ and ‘chemical’ to be opposites in advertising, with ‘chemical’ on the nasty side of the balance. It’s not enough that the public don’t have negative views – what both the lack of popular science titles and the survey seem to show is that the public don’t consider chemistry particularly relevant. According to Ceci ‘People struggle to imagine how chemistry affects their everyday lives and regard chemists as lacking in agency: they do not recognize how chemists are involved in the end product of their own work.’  

One of the key findings of the research was that ‘On the whole, people did not feel informed about chemistry, or particularly confident.’ When participants in workshops were asked to compare characteristics of chemistry with science in general, chemistry did not fare well. It elicited adjectives such as intimidating, serious, methodical, repetitive, quiet, inaccessible and secretive – while science was considered welcoming, friendly, fun, active, applied, busy, accessible and exciting. This would appear to be an area where opinions could benefit from a shift – and more good popular chemistry books could help.


Chemistry? Yes, but what is it?
Interestingly, one topic that was not covered in the research was to ask respondents what they thought that chemistry was. For that matter, nowhere on the RSC’s website does there appear a definition of chemistry – an RSC source commented ‘I don’t think the RSC has an official definition, but I think it’s one of those things that “you know it when you see it”.’ This unwritten constitution seems to encompass elements and reactions, and probably atoms and molecules and bonds – though the borderline with physics there can be difficult. I wonder if this is more of an issue for popular science books than is immediately apparent.

Publishing likes clear categories in which to fit its books. Physics and biology, give them strong headline definitions. Biology could be described as ‘How living things work.’ Physics tells us ‘How the universe and its fundamental components work.’ When we see the term, we know what’s in the tin. But for chemistry, the description is more a rag-tag shopping list. It surely would be helpful to have an equivalent strong ‘high concept’ definition, though I have to leave it to chemists to provide one.

If we are to believe the editors, the paucity of good popular science books in chemistry reflects both a lack of appropriate topics and insufficient good proposals for new titles. A word (perhaps not frequently associated with chemistry) that both editors interviewed used was ‘sexy’. What makes a topic sexy in publishing terms is its ability to grab the reader’s attention and draw them in – and there are a number of ways to do this. A popular science book can connect to readers’ lives and show them potential benefits from the science (remember that the RSC study showed that people struggled to see a connection to everyday lives). A book can also take on the application of science in an exciting way that’s outside our usual experience – space, for example, remains a hugely popular topic area, despite not being personally relevant.

Equally, a popular science title can cover a big, important idea. For example, a physics book might cover gravity or quantum physics – we need to identify the chemistry equivalents. Not all successful books are on big topics, though. Sometimes the appeal comes from focussing in on an intriguing, tightly defined subject, such as quantum entanglement or big data. Equally some great books go large, covering a wide range for a beginner – these tend to use a connecting ‘hook’ such as the science you experience on a flight, or the science of a city. 

At the heart of all good popular science books is narrative – and the most easily appealing narrative is one centred on human beings. People like people. So another approach for many popular science titles is to tell the story of an individual – or of a scientific breakthrough, explored through the life of that individual. What publishers (and the public) don’t want is either a simplified textbook – all facts and no narrative – or vague overviews. There needs to be a theme or hook to make an overview work effectively. 

Perhaps the most obvious theme for chemistry to use is food. Ceci comments ‘One idea that was popular in the survey was to take chemistry away from the classroom in people’s minds and to place it in the kitchen. Food and cooking show people that chemistry is not the sole territory of experts. Members of the public liked the idea that we are all chemists in a way: it builds up their confidence and they start thinking of chemistry as part of life rather than a subject that they will be tested on.’ 

This is indeed good – but although ‘science as part of your everyday life’ works well in overview books, oddly, the kitchen seems not to have engaged much excitement where it has been employed in popular chemistry so far. Once possible difficulty is that there is a strong tradition of cookery writing depending on having a celebrity name on the cover. An agent I spoke to about the viability of a science/food crossover title said ‘Unless you’re on TV there’s no point writing a food book.’ Perhaps the answer would be co-authored titles with chefs who have an interest in the science of food, such as Heston Blumenthal.

The benefits of good popular science books far outweigh the sales figures. There is a greater potential to build a strong contact with a book reader than there is through a TV show, for example. TV excites a brief, shallow interest in a wide range of people, but books give greater engagement. If we want to get people into chemistry careers, and supporting more funding, we need more than neutrality – we need enthusiasm. And that is likely to be reflected if we can find chemistry topics that exhibit the desired sexiness.

It may not be a perfect measure, but limited coverage of chemistry in popular science books does reflect negatively on the way the subject is presented. The success of Sam Kean’s popular chemistry title The Disappearing Spoon shows that well-written chemistry titles with a strong narrative can succeed. But to do so it is necessary to break away from the traditional approaches of academic chemistry writing. Kean used the familiar unifying theme of the periodic table, but broke away from its formality by building his structure around stories. Popular chemistry writing needs to break into the other popular science writing sub-types and to smash through the barrier of the belief that it does not affect everyday lives. 

We should be looking to tell stories featuring applications of chemistry we can identify with – the chemistry of anything from fabric conditioners and hair dyes to fossil fuels and antacid tablets. But we also need chemistry to develop big picture themes beyond the periodic table. The RSC research into public attitudes to chemistry showed that public engagement with, and interest in, science is growing year on year. More and better popular chemistry books would be one excellent way to ensure that chemistry is not side-lined in this growth.

Comments

  1. Let me mention my own From Stars to Stalagmites; How Everything Connects. With hindsight, I wish I had taken my editor's advice and called it From Stars to Stalagmites; How Chemistry Connects Everything, but I feared that this would narrow its appeal.

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    1. It's never to late to get a review here if you publisher would like to provide a review copy - just drop us an email at info@popularscience.co.uk

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  2. i'm reading "A world from dust - how the periodic table shaped life" by Ben McFarland, OUP 2016). It's rather dense at certain spot, but fascinating, and even more important, illuminating. I wished i had the book when i was studying chemistry in school, or even when i was studying medicine.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, as mentioned above, OUP has more semi-popular chemistry titles than any other publisher (Eric Scerri's excellent books, for example). They are often not really popular science titles, though, but rather useful backgrounders for someone who is studying chemistry at degree level or above.

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