Popular Science Essay

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The unexpected--and unprecedented--success of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes created a big bang of its own in the world of publishing.

The Cambridge University re- searcher's textual flight through space and time, published by New York's Bantam Books in April 1988, earned rave reviews the world over and spent 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, ringing up sales of some 1 million copies in its hardcover edition alone.

Publishers did double-takes, then scrambled to sign up scientists with stories to tell and theories to explain.

As a result, popular science books--those that bring scientific knowledge to the public in a voice that the layman can understand and appreciate--have become something of a trend, and more scientists than ever before are venturing into the world of mass-market publishing.

This is not some celebration of how great a guy you are, and it's not a two-week vacation in Hawaii." Ronald K. He offers this advice to avoid burnout from lengthy book tours: "Watch or listen to the shows the publicist has scheduled for you, and be selective.

Siegel, a psychopharmacologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, received much media attention from his book Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise (New York, E. Know that radio call-in shows can be done over the phone from your office. With so many scientists entering the world of mass-market publishing, maybe you're thinking about writing a book for a popular audience or have been approached by a publisher about doing so.If you're flying from city to city, you might want to consider taking rest periods." If you don't have the time or desire to go on a publicity tour, Siegel says, "you can ask the publisher to divert money from tour promotion to [giving away] free copies." Siegel, for example, had Intoxication sent to every member of Congress who has jurisdiction over drug policy, as well as to members of several Cabinet departments. Scientists who have written for the mass market say the experience can be very fulfilling--but it can also be tedious and time-consuming. The first thing to examine if you're thinking about writing a popular nonfiction book is your motivation."It's not so much for publicity, but more for communicating ideas--which is what popular science books are really all about." --A. Before visions of fame and fortune begin to orbit your mind, consider that Hawking's megasuc-cess--while always a possible payoff of the effort of writing a book--is rare for any genre. Professor of Science, usually relies on one of two methods.It takes sales of 60,000 copies on average to garner a position on one or more of the bestseller lists, and most popular science books are not likely to sell more than 20,000. Inc., 1981), among others: "Not to sound egotistical or flip, but I do it for myself, and I would suppose any good writer would tell you the same." No Small Task The next point to consider is whether you can, and really want to, expend the effort required to write for the mass market. "One is to embed the fairly hard, technical data into a matrix of general introductory and more simplified explanatory material--much like raisins in a muffin," he says.While there are numerous valid motivations that can impel a scientist to write a book for the mass market, the veteran scientist/authors surveyed for this article cite a strong desire to write as being the most essential for ensuring success. It is certainly not something to be considered lightly, and it's not something every scientist is capable of doing or will want to do. Veteran scientist/authors cite a number of techniques that they say can help ease the transition to popular writing. "Readers are thereby drawn in and can move along easily through the material and are sufficiently attracted to it that they will be able to more willingly endure the technical descriptions.Quite simply, I love to write." Says Gould, author of Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York, W. Ferris, who does not do research and considers himself a writer rather than a scientist, offers some inside, objective advice: "Scientists need to appreciate the time factor, as well as the fact that writing a mass-market book is most likely harder than what they're used to writing. Try your hand at a short essay and determine if it's enjoyable for you to take complex information and make it informative for, and entertaining to, nonscientists. Determine if you have an ability to use metaphors or other literary techniques, and most important, if you enjoy the process. Write up a proposal, consisting of an overview of what the book will cover, an outline, and a couple of sample chapters. Get a good literary agent who is willing to help you shape the proposal and take the book around to publishers. Once you get a deal, make sure you schedule the appropriate amount of time to do the project. During the writing phase, communicate with your agent and your editor about any problems or difficult passages. Hazen, who is also a professor of earth sciences at George Mason University, says that the most effective approach is to tell stories."They need, too, to understand that there's no way the general reading public can really understand a concept unless [the author] can put it in clear, simple language." Indeed, writing a mass-market book is an experiment of sorts in a laboratory very different from the one to which scientists are accustomed. Says Hazen, who is also the coauthor, with George Mason physics professor James Trefil, of Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy (Doubleday & Co., New York, 1991): "People like, and can relate to, and are entertained by stories."We're always on the lookout for science books," says Leslie Meredith, executive editor at Bantam.There are two stages to book publishing--writing, editing, and printing the manuscript serve as the first; marketing the product is the second."No one is ever forced to go on a publicity tour," says University of California, Berkeley, astronomer Timothy Ferris, a veteran of the radio and TV circuit."But if you are asked, the thing to remember is that your [main] responsibility is to communicate with the public.


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