As a graduate student in a natural science, I often end up being annoyed by scientific journalists. They tend to hype up the titles of their articles so much as to deform what they report, and they create a load of false expectations and promises. This is evidence that science journalism is just an industry like any other. Big titles attract attention and increase apparent readership. If your goal is to convey science to the public such that people will understand it, this is not the way to go. This is a way to make profit.
For sure, not all scientific journalism is bad. Some of it actually lives up to its promise of making the reader understand the ideas without any resort to the technicalities and jargon of the research world. It seems to me that the best kind of scientific journalism comes in book form. The reason for that is simple. The new ideas coming from the frontiers of science which are worth sharing are often subtle and complex, and it takes at least a book to convey the essence of the new idea. Don’t worry though, even if the idea is complex, a good scientific journalist should be able to take you by the hand on an enjoyable ride towards understanding. This is exactly what the fours books I will shortly discuss are about. If you are on a quest to know more about the world you live in, you will love these books.
These books all have something in common. I think they are all built on a simple formula that is incredibly effective. Here is what I think is the rule: Tell the story of how you came to know what you are reporting about. Make it a personal story of investigation, skepticism and learning. Let the reader relive the journey you went through to figure out the new ideas. I think it works because these authors don’t only tell what they learned, but also how they learned it. It makes these books fun to read, and very informative. This, my friends, is true journalism. I certainly hope you will pick up some of these books, and enjoy them as much as I did.
The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle
Daniel travels the world to unravel the origin of exceptional displays of talent. He visits a number of talent “hotbeds” such as Brazil which has been churning out one world class soccer player after another. He also talks with a number of scientists of the brain in order to find a neurological explanation to how talent is generated. The answer he finds is remarkably simple. It is a story of myelin, ignition, deep practice and master coaching. This is the book that puts an end to the notion of being born with talent.
Massive by Ian Sample
Ian traces back the achievement of particle physicists back to the fifties, and works his way back towards the present. He tells the modern drama of the search for the Higgs particle, from its first appearance in theories to the multi-billion-dollar machines of today dedicated to find it. He tells the story of how the United States got to loose the Superconducting Supercollider, and how particle physics is now completing its migration to Europe. To me, this story was especially fascinating since it puts in context the research I do on a daily basis.
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
Joshua have average memory capacities. Nevertheless, he embarks on a journey to become one of these mental athletes who can memorize decks of cards in under a minute. After a year of intense training, he ends up winning the US memory championship… How is that possible? This book takes you on a voyage to explore how human memory works, and how memorization have been an integral part of our lives until recently, when we finally accepted books and other media as repositories for our knowledge. This book connects nicely with The Talent Code.
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
Jon is a rather anxious person, but his curiosity ends up pulling him anyway into the strange and scary world of psychopathy. He meets with a number of authorities in the field and he comes across the psychopath checklist. He then meets with a number of people, some being known psychopaths, some other just suspected of being psychopaths by the author himself. Constantly keeping the checklist in mind, Jon starts seeing psychopath behavior everywhere until a sober skepticism takes hold in his mind about the whole idea. There is no firm conclusion (as none can be drawn), but the ride is thrilling. Jon invites you to make your own mind, which is part of why this book is so great.