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Science past and present

Tom Siegfried
Context

Top 10 science popularizers of all time

Since antiquity, some people have served society by translating science into popular form

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan's style and flair for communicating science is unmatched, and nobody articulates the phrase “billions and billions” better, though many have tried.

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Scientists have always needed translators. In olden times, that often meant from one language to another, as when ancient Greek science texts were copied into Latin or Arabic versions. But even then the problem existed of simply communicating the complexities of science to interested nonscientists. Addressing that need required a knack for recasting the jargon and nuanced depth of experts into a version accessible to the literate public at large. Many scientists over the centuries, along with some nonscientist writers, have taken up that challenge and excelled. Today, no doubt, more individuals popularize science than ever before, but none as well as my Top 10 science popularizers of all time.

10. Johannes De Sacrobosco (c. 1195–1244 or 1256)

Also known as John of Holywood, for a monastery in Scotland where he lived before moving to Paris, Sacrobosco came of age just as Aristotelian philosophy initiated a rebirth of scientific thinking in Europe. His early history is shady, although he was possibly educated at Oxford. In Paris he became a prominent mathematician and wrote an influential and popular book about the newfangled Arabic numerals. He also mastered astronomy (which in those days was mainly about math) and his clearly written book The Sphere became a standard astronomy text all over Europe for several centuries. His death date is not known for sure due to an ambiguity in the phrasing on his tombstone.

9. Posidonius  (c. 135 B.C. – c. 51 B.C.)

Posidonius, of the Stoic philosophical school, was an influential writer whose voluminous writings are sadly unavailable today — there apparently was a lack of proper attention to preservation strategies in the first century B.C. He was born in Syria but his parents were Greek. He traveled widely around the Mediterranean and was known to many prominent Romans. Posidonius articulated a distinction between philosophers — who should focus on the fundamental principles of nature — and scientists, who should investigate specific problems. He was the universal scholar of his era, writing on cosmology, astronomy, geography, geology and meteorology, as well as moral philosophy and history. His greatest legacy grew from an error: His calculation of the circumference of the Earth was substantially too small but was nevertheless adopted by the astronomer-geographer Ptolemy, whose writings led Columbus to deduce it wouldn’t be so terribly far to sail westward to reach India.

8. Pliny the Elder (Gaius Plinius Secundus) (c. 23–79)

Pliny composed the first encyclopedic work by a single author designed to describe all of nature. He viewed himself as a sort of one-man Google (although he did have helpers), attempting to compile all the facts he could about the world. Early in life he was a military man, but began a writing career by producing accounts of warfare and military history. Later he served the Roman emperor Vespasian at various posts throughout the empire. Eventually he assembled his Natural History, finished shortly before his death in A.D. 79, near Pompeii, possibly by way of toxic fumes from the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius.

7. Mary Somerville (1780-1872)

As a young girl in Scotland, Mary was allowed to attend only one year of schooling (when she was 10). Cleverly, she then secretly taught herself algebra and geometry. Her marriage took her to London, where she continued to read about science and math despite the disdain of her husband, who (like her farther) discouraged women from pursuing intellectual interests. But then her husband died and she moved back to Scotland and began studying Newton’s works and astronomy. She married again to a much more supportive husband, made acquaintances with some of Britain’s leading scientists, and began writing wildly successful books explaining current science to the public. She became as famous as most of the scientists she wrote about and was held in high esteem by the scientific community.   

6. Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757)

Born in Rouen, France, and educated at the Jesuit college there, Fontenelle started a career writing plays and operas, which all flopped at the box office. So he turned to popularizing the ideas of the great French philosopher-scientist René Descartes. Afterwards Fontenelle began to write more broadly on the history and philosophy of science. His work earned sufficient respect from the scientific community that he was named permanent secretary of the French academy of sciences, and from that position he wrote extensively on science and scientists for the rest of his long life. His most famous work, Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, was a masterpiece of scientific exposition in the form of a dialog between a man and a woman contemplating the frontiers of discovery.

5. Henri Poincaré  (1854-1912)

A popularizer more of math than science generally, Poincaré was an eminent mathematician in late 19th and early 20th century France. His work came close to anticipating Einstein’s special theory of relativity, and he was the founding father of the mathematics of chaos theory. He described the latest mathematical developments, in historical and philosophical perspective, in a series of engagingly written books that are still widely available in English translation today.

4. Stephen Jay Gould  (1941-2002)

A master of narrative style conveying intricate detail, Gould made paleontology and evolutionary biology irresistibly engaging in numerous books and essays. His nonpopular, technical tome on evolutionary theory, published shortly before his death, is an underappreciated tour de force; it revealed both the depth of Darwin’s subtle reasoning and how it needed to be modified to merge with the modern understanding of natural selection on multiple levels, from genes to organisms to species.

3. George Gamow  (1904-1968)

A mischievous Russian-American physicist well-known for his jokes and tricks, Gamow made major contributions to the understanding of radioactivity and was a leading figure in the early days of Big Bang cosmology. Later in life he turned to biology, playing a major role in the early understanding of molecular genetics. But he also wrote extensively for the public — his “Mr. Tompkins” series of books on modern physics are still among the best for explaining relativity and quantum physics. And his One Two Three … Infinity remains a classic about math and its relationship to various sciences.

2. Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

Most famous for the TV series Cosmos, Sagan also wrote several elegant popular books, championing the scientific spirit as an antidote to the purveyors of superstition and irrationality. Nobody today matches Sagan’s combination of substance and style and flair for communicating science, and nobody articulates the phrase “billions and billions” better, though many have tried. Unfortunately, jealousy of his popular success impaired his career as an astronomer, not a flattering commentary on the judgment of the scientific community.

1. Isaac Asimov  (1920-1992)

Best known for his science fiction, Asimov was even more prolific as a nonfiction science writer, producing book after book covering nearly all fields of science, including a biographical dictionary, a chronology of scientific events from ancient times to the present, and the comprehensive Guide to Science that captured the whole story of all of science in one thick volume. Asimov’s writings (both fiction and non-) influenced generations of scientists, and his laws of robotics still serve as a perceptive warning to the developers of artificial intelligence systems today. His approach to writing — good advice for all popularizers — was summarized in one of his later books: “I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardi­nal rule in all my writing — to be clear,” he wrote. “I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize. I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics — well, they can do whatever they wish.”

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