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Scientists Who Write, Writers Who Do Science

Book writing affords scientists a way to communicate directly with the public

April 2011--A few years ago, David Linden went searching bookstores for a popular science book in his own area of expertise--molecular neuroscience. While he found plenty of books on neurology and its syndromes, by authors such as Oliver Sacks and Vilayanur Ramachandran, he found few written for a general readership that elaborated on the molecular details of the brain.

cop_cover.jpg David Linden's new book will be released in April.

So Linden decided to write his own. He’s now the author of two books: The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God, written while Linden was on sabbatical in 2004 to 2005; and The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good, which is being released this April.

Among Hopkins scientists, though, Linden is a rare breed. While many write scholarly books, relatively few have penned popular science literature.

At one time, science popularization was controversial, and scientists who popularized their fields through books, television or radio were sometimes derided by colleagues, says Stephen Desiderio, director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences. That may no longer be the case. Scientists may now have a greater appreciation for the need to explain science to the public, especially when public taxpayers are supporting their research. 

But many scientists, especially those still building their careers and vying for tenure, simply lack the time to write a book. While tenure committees like to see that a junior faculty member has written any type of book—scholarly or popular, the primary criteria for promotion are research articles and teaching accomplishments, says Richard Huganir, chair of the Department of Neuroscience and a member of the Professorial Promotions Committee.

“A book won’t help you get over the hump of tenure,” says Linden, who did not write his first book until after he’d become a full professor. 

Another factor that may deter some scientists from penning a book is the writing process itself: Writing can be hard. Some authors relish the process, says Linden. Not he. “I enjoy thinking about what to write and I like having written something, but the writing itself is more like passing a kidney stone,” he says.

However, he’s learned strategies that help. When he began writing his first book, he says, his first drafts read like scientific papers, full of dry colorless prose that no one outside of his field would find inviting. 

David Linden

“It was hardest to write about things I knew best,” says Linden. “They always came out with too much detail, minutiae, whereas areas I didn’t know well were easier to write about.” 

Linden stuck with it, though, and gradually, he says, “I learned to get out of the scientist’s mental state enough to write for a general audience.” He realized that writing for a lay audience, he says, “is an exercise in empathy. You have to put yourself in the mindset of the reader.” While scientists might casually use terms such as “aliquot” or “gene expression” or others in the scientific vernacular, those terms sound like foreign speech to most people.

So given the daunting task and limited professional payback, why should any scientist bother to write a science book for public consumption?

For one thing, such books can spark a student’s passion for science, says Desiderio. “Many of us went into science because of these books. I ate them up,” he says. In high school and college, he read popular science books and memoirs by eminent scientists such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Theodosius Dobzhansky and Francois Jacob. He still keeps the well-thumbed copies on his office shelves.

While textbooks and other technical writing are essential to a scientist’s training, popular science books can complement those by revealing the eloquence and beauty of science.

That’s important, not just for aspiring scientists but for everyone in society, adds Mario Livio, a best-selling book author and an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute. “I strongly believe that everybody should be exposed to the beauty of science. This does not mean that every person should be a scientist or a mathematician, but rather that everyone should have an appreciation for the excitement that is involved in scientific discovery.” His books include Is God a Mathematician?, The Golden Ratio and The Accelerating Universe, which explains the surprising finding that the cosmic expansion is speeding up. Writing books, he says, “has allowed me to combine my passions for science and for the arts. In my writing, I always try to fuse the two.”

Granted, there are other ways to explain science and convey its wonders besides book writing. Many scientists, for instance, give public talks about their work or visit high school classes. Some write blogs.

Linden, for one, hopes that the next generation of scientists will find its own way to participate in such endeavors. He plans to pass on the insights he’s learned as a neuroscientist book author. Next year, he will teach a neuroscience graduate course for students who want to learn how to write about the brain for a general audience.

--Melissa Hendricks