The Great Books and Pop Science

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The Great Books and Pop Science

nov 10, 2021, 4:04 pm

I was browsing a used bookstore the other day and I noticed they had multiple copies of the Great Books series

I noticed that many of the science related books were academic and were serious books in the year they were published. It made realize a lot of pop science books really don't educate you on a concept. If they are not pure marketing they usually leave with you with a couple of fun facts. They are usually narrative heavy even sometimes giving autobiographic narrative. In the past 20 or 30 years have there any science books(besides textbooks and research papers) that have been published that give you a more deep understanding of a scientific concept and could appear in a contemporary Great Book series.

nov 10, 2021, 5:03 pm

>1 GDassa: Not familiar with series, but as far as pop science books that are what I'd consider informative but accessible to laypeople Chaos: Making a New Science would be an example. Great intro into the topic, giving you both basic concepts and the history of scientific developments in the field. There's also plenty of books where academics/experts write on a topic in a narrative, pop-science manner, from Oliver Sacks or Hawking to Alan Lightman or Steven Pinker. In short, I haven't noticed any lack of quality pop science, but there's certainly a lot of fluff too, like in any genre whatsoever.

Not sure which would be suitable for that series, but I'm guessing at least A Brief History of Time fits as already a classic, if it isn't there already

nov 11, 2021, 8:31 am

The concept of a Great Books canon is sort of antithetical to how science works. Science moves on! Old science books, with a few rare exceptions (of the sort that are included in the series like Darwin and Newton) are not "classics" - they're "obsolete". This applies both to textbooks and to pop-science books. Reading what were important pop science books in the 1990s will teach you about the history of science, not science.

Now, if you want good pop science recommendations, I can provide them. If you want pop science recommendations that are Enduring Classics Forever to be recommended to readers fifty years from now? Sorry, nope.

Redigerat: nov 11, 2021, 1:34 pm

Linear and Quasi-linear Equations of Parabolic Type is 54 years old, and has 10 citations in 2021 in the professional literature. I think I can find many other examples of 50 year-old technical mathematical works that are not obsolete.

ETA: Fixed touchstone.

nov 11, 2021, 9:56 am

Math is not science. Math is the language that science is done in.

nov 11, 2021, 12:44 pm

>5 lorax:

Good point. (I wish Tim agreed!)

But isn't "obsolete" a little strong even for some empirical sciences? Take geology. Is Beyond the Visible Landscape at age 17 a third of the way to being obsolete? Are all the foundational plate tectonics papers of the 1960s now obsolete? Why does the Utah Geological Survey still offer hundreds of pre-1971 publications on their website? Roadside Geology of Utah, published in 1990, did go into a second edition in 2014, but I don't think that was because the authors changed their mind about all the geological claims in the first edition.

nov 11, 2021, 12:48 pm

>6 cpg: (I wish Tim agreed!)

Is this grumble regarding a genres decision? I concur that math is not science, but I also would observe that they are published and sold together in a way that would justify genre lumping of math&science.

nov 11, 2021, 1:32 pm

>7 paradoxosalpha:

I'd be fine with a genre called "Math & Science", but mathematics books are currently dumped into "Science & Nature". If math isn't science, it surely isn't nature.

nov 11, 2021, 5:28 pm

>5 lorax: So mathematicians are what? Secretaries? Language specialists? Because according to you, they are not scientists.

When I was at school, math was called the Queen of Sciences. I still call it that. You can redelegate it to the servants’ quarters all you want.

PS: And no - I really do not care what an American organization calls it. Anywhere else in the world I know of it is considered science.

Back on topic - not all sciences and not all branches move at the same speed. A book does not get obsolete just because it is 30 years old - developments in the field may occasionally make it actually even more valid than it was when the book was published.

nov 11, 2021, 6:04 pm

One thing I like to do when I teach is use the older books to show how the knowledge evolved into the present. I think this helps the students to see the big picture of what was, what is, and what is possible. Just saying 'x is this' doesn't really tell you why or why it is important to know.

nov 11, 2021, 6:17 pm

>9 AnnieMod:

Um, you seem to be working on the presumption that "scientist" is a honorific instead of a profession. That's not how scientists or mathematicians generally see it and there is certainly nothing demeaning in saying mathematicians are not scientists. It's no different to saying mathematicians aren't dentists--because mathematics is its own field and mathematicians are correctly and adequately named mathematicians.

nov 11, 2021, 6:28 pm

>11 LolaWalser: I don't work based on presumptions; I comment based on how most mathematicians I know call themselves. :)

nov 11, 2021, 6:57 pm

>12 AnnieMod:

That's funny because I know bunches of mathematicians and none would call themselves scientists. I mean, we make a point of advertising for "mathematicians" when we need a mathematician. Are you sure you aren't talking about so-called "computer scientists", especially the oodles working commercially as techbros? Because I can see where that sort would want to jack-up their maths credentials at the expense of being considered "mere" engineers.

Redigerat: nov 11, 2021, 7:34 pm

Boundaries of intellectual and academic disciplines can vary across languages and cultures, too. I mean, Wissenschaft is "science" ... sort of.

nov 11, 2021, 8:08 pm

>13 LolaWalser: No, I am not talking about computer scientists. I know the difference well enough - I made my choice a long time ago to move from one field to the other.

You don't advertise for a scientist when you need a biologist either - you advertise for a biologist or whatever you need exactly. Scientist is really a too broad category when you are looking for something specific. Following your reasoning, biologists are also not scientists either.

>14 paradoxosalpha: Who cares about other cultures and other languages - an American organization decided that it is not a science organization, ergo everyone else is wrong. :) I probably should have stayed away from this conversation (we already hashed it out in the Genres debate) but it just hit me the wrong way at the wrong time.

nov 11, 2021, 8:17 pm

>15 AnnieMod:

Yeah, sure looks like you got up on the wrong side of the bed. I was hardly coming in with fists bared.

Redigerat: nov 11, 2021, 8:32 pm

>16 paradoxosalpha: I was not talking about you (I was actually agreeing with you that this is culture and language dependent to some extent). Sarcasm does not translate well online. Sorry :)

It was a general note about people who pronounce that something is a fact just because someone somewhere declared it so and they happen to agree. :)

nov 11, 2021, 8:50 pm

>3 lorax: I’m interested in your recommendations. As a senior citizen, I have a tendency to think stuff is up-to-date when it really isn't.

nov 11, 2021, 9:47 pm

>1 GDassa: The "Great Books of the Western World" series is structured around a particular idea of what constitutes a "classic" that -- as others have noted -- makes scientific texts fit awkwardly into it. That said, I don't think the situation is entirely bleak.

Basin and Range by John McPhee remains, 40 years after it was written, a bracing introduction to the concept of "deep time" in geology, and its value on that front will survive the inevitable revisions of our understanding of the titular geological province in the American West.

Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould has lasting value as a treatise on thinking about evolution that will, again, survive the inevitable changes in our understanding of the Burgess Shale fossils that have come and will come.

Black Holes and Time Warps by Kip Thorne is way outside my expertise, but (along with A Brief History of Time) by Stephen Hawking) I think it's got a fair shot at having the staying power of, say, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, by Albert Einstein.

Finally, though it's outside the time range specified, I'd nominate The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn . . . not because (at 60 years old) it's some kind of transcendent be-all and end-all in the conversation about how science works, but because (like virtually all the non-literary works in the Great Books series) its influence on the conversation is deep and long-lasting.

nov 12, 2021, 1:23 pm

>15 AnnieMod:

It's bizarre how het up you got about this when at the root there seems to be just some sort of semantic misunderstanding. You reacted as if lorax was condescending to mathematicians whereas to me it's obvious they were just echoing the routine division between mathematics and empirical science. "Science" has multiple meanings but in the context of the thread it was clear people were talking about the latter--fields like physics to cognitive science. So why confuse the matter when the general usage is known and uncontroversial?

>14 paradoxosalpha:

What we need is a Philosopher to tell us properly what's what. Seriously, I'm very much against fetishisation of definitions, but there are good reasons why we perceive (however dimly and unphilosophically) categorical differences between science, mathematics, medicine, and arts.

nov 12, 2021, 1:43 pm

>20 LolaWalser: Because in the context of the thread, science does include math. Pop science books don’t ignore math either. :)

nov 12, 2021, 2:14 pm

>21 AnnieMod:

Fair enough.

dec 4, 2021, 2:04 pm

Very interesting discussion. I just have a "shred" of evidence that everything "old" is "obsolete." Although, this may border more on math, than science. In 1972 at The Ohio State University I had to take a "hard" science course, part of making me a better, all-round person! I elected astronomy, because I "hated" science. Well, well, well! I found out that this astronomy course was actually a math course about space, light reflections and refractions, and (gasp!) paralaxes, etc. The only "C" I ever received in any course in my post high school academic career (9 years). Seems I wasn't good with math, either. I say all of that to say, that the book is still in a tote in the basement. Why? I don't know! However, I would venture to say that while the tools used to make sure measurements are probably much more advanced now, the textbook describing such astronomical facts and how to figure the inclinations, etc., are still probably the same! Just a wild guess!

feb 3, 2022, 2:57 pm

>5 lorax:

"Nov 11, 2021, 9:56am
Math is not science. Math is the language that science is done in."

Hence why when I attended University, Calculus satisfied my foreign language requirement (true story!).


Redigerat: feb 20, 2022, 9:59 pm

>9 AnnieMod: Mathematics is not really science. The reason is that mathematics is deductive - if the premises are true, then the conclusion MUST be true. Mathematics starts from a series of "self-evident" axioms, from which further truths are deduced.

Science is inductive - if the premises are true, then the conclusion MAY be true. The truth must be "established" by experiment. The "truth" can (probably) never be truly established unless infinite experiments and infinite time is allowed.

That said, deductive reasoning (mathematics) cannot produce new "knowledge" because every mathematical fact is implicit in the axioms. Science, being deductive, can produce new knowledge because facts are not necessarily implicit in the "axioms."

It has to do with "new" knowledge.

Don't feel bad about mathematics not being "science." Science could not exist without it. And I wish my chemistry and biochemistry students grasped it better than they do.

Redigerat: feb 20, 2022, 10:30 pm

Det här meddelandet har tagits bort av dess författare.

mar 7, 2022, 9:52 am

>25 Retired-book-addict:

My apologies if this has already been posted: