THE AGE OF UNPOPULAR AND SOFT SCIENCE
When I was in college, there was a cohort among us science-minded folks who looked down upon popular science that was then being popularised by scientists like Jayant Narlikar. With more than a hint of egotism, they used to shun "scipop" as they called it as being the bastard son of "real" science. I always used to disagree with these friends of mine, perhaps because I myself was interested in popular science since the beginning. But somewhere I used to find myself wanting to agree with their contention that what we were supposed to do was real science, macho science, and that we should not pay attention to this dumbed down version of science, wimpy science.
Also when I was in college, the real academic stars among students were those who excelled in mathematics and physics. Chemistry was somewhere in between. Those who studied biology were seen to lack the intellectual zing and brilliance that these other mathematically oriented folks had. The mathies; they were the ones considered the brainy child geniuses. Maths and physics, these were the "hard" sciences. Biology was a "soft" science. And we needn't have even gotten started on the social sciences like psychology.
What's common between these two above attitudes? They are both lopsided and in the end, just wrong.
Now Michael Shermer, a favourite author of mine and editor of Skeptic Magazine has written an excellent piece in Scientific American that demolishes both these myths; that popular science is somehow less respectable than technical science and that biology and the social sciences are "soft". I agree with him and have some thoughts of my own.
First of all, while it is true that doing creative research in mathematics or physics is quite hard, at least the variables that define a system are constrained by the researcher. One can have very fixed assumptions and axioms. In biology or psychology on the other hand, it is often difficult to even define the variables, let alone constrain them. In fact it is usually impossible to constrain them in the real world. Physics, for all its usefulness, many times involves multiple assumptions about "ideal systems" that need to be radically modfied when approaching real-world problems. It is of course very important to have results from these ideal systems, but the point is that applying them to a real life system is if anything as hard as the conception of the approach. And it gets harder as you move from cells to bodies to human societies. So the epithet of "hard sciences" for more mathematically based sciences is really a misnomer. This notably is not taking away anything from these sciences as being the foundations of most scientific research, but it's just an acknowledgement that their application to "higher" levels requires non-reductionist and novel techniques that are as hard as their own.
As an aside, this should also demolish any thoughts people might have about the reasons for there being more women in the biological sciences. Clearly, any attempts to correlate this fact with their intelligence is nonsense. If anything, women might be more successful in the biological sciences because they are better at having an overall view of things.
And so it is also for popular science. While there is a lot of mediocre or average popular science out there, its is very difficult to write an impeccable popular science book; one in which the science is simplified but not oversimplified, crystal clear but not naively presented, catchy but not too informal or flippant, rigorous yet accessible. There are very few examples of such writing. I would suggest almost anything written by Richard Dawkins, Philip Ball, Brian Greene, Stephen Jay Gould and my favourite popular science book of all time, John Casti's Paradigms Lost. Writing supremely readable popular science is as difficult, if in a different way, as doing challenging research.
But there is a quite different and extremely important reason why popular science should be hailed right now. The dark forces of ignorance, religion-inspired politics and general intolerance are making science even more confusing and inaccessible to an already scientifically-challenged public. It is the utmost need of the day for more science writers to come forward and write enlightening and eloquent science. For this reason, popular science now has become as important in my opinion as the best of scientific research. Without conveying science well, it will languish even more in the shadows, and we would be deprived of the one thread of rationality which can save us.