The challenge inherent in writing popular science books for a mainstream audience is obvious. Recent polls about scientific literacy conducted in the US, the UK, and Australia have all revealed depressing results, including, most alarmingly of all, that only roughly half of all respondents know that the Earth orbits the sun and takes a year to do it. In other words, for large swaths of the population of the modern, industrialized world, Kepler and Galileo – to say nothing of Newton, Curie, and Einstein – lived in vain, or might never have lived at all.
This reflects a massive and systematic failure in science education, and that failure creates an ever-widening gap between scientists and non-scientists. Popular science writing has always tried to close that gap, and three of the latest examples in bookstores make valiant attempts.
Astronomy magazine columnist (and science editor for "The Old Farmer's Almanac") Bob Berman, for instance, takes a jaunty, conversational approach in his new book Zapped: From Infrared to X-rays, the Curious History of Invisible Light, telling his readers right at the start that they are surrounded by his subject. “At this moment, as you sit quietly reading this book,” he writes, “you are awash in it.… You cannot see, hear, smell, or feel it, but there is never a single second when it is not flying through your body. Too much of it will kill you, but without it you wouldn't live a year.”
Berman tells readers the history of science's discovery of such things as gamma rays, cosmic rays, and ultraviolet rays, and he's an unfailingly congenial explainer, always ready with the kinds of fascinating facts his readers might have missed in school. “Did you know that a single whole-body CT scan often delivers more radiation than was received by Hiroshima survivors a mile from ground zero?” he asks. “Or that living across the street from a nuclear power plant for a full year gives you less radiation than eating a single banana?” (Bananas, it turns out, contain radioactive potassium-40).
MIT physicist Max Tegmark opts for a less collegial though no less fascinating approach in his new book, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. The title refers to a third, as-yet hypothetical stage of life. 1.0 is simple life, “where both the hardware and the software are evolved rather than designed.” 2.0 is evolved life that can design software. And Life 3.0 would be software that could intentionally and with increasing creativity design more software – and the “would be” is a very borderline thing, thanks to the “smart” technology currently proliferating all over the world. “Life 1.0 arrived about 4 billion years ago, Life 2.0 (we humans) arrived about a hundred millennia ago, and many AI [Artificial Intelligence] researchers think that Life 3.0 may arrive during the coming century, perhaps even during our lifetime.”
Although it's probably not his intention, much of what Tegmark writes will quietly terrify his readers. He spins scenarios in which the technology on which humans depend consults those humans less and less, preferring instead to learn, adapt, and innovate on its own – building security systems, national power grids, and medical and financial information networks, all using algorithms to change and grow, often in unpredictable ways that don't mirror humanity's own developmental path. “After all,” Tegmark writes, “why should our simplest path to a new technology be the one that evolution came up with, constrained by requirements that it be self-assembling, self-repairing and self-reproducing?” As his wife likes to point out, “The aviation industry didn't start with mechanical birds.”
Fiercely different in its own way from either Berman's joviality or Tegmark's disquieting predictions is the approach of the third of these books, Science in the Soul, a generous anthology of the speeches, essays, and occasional writings of one of the great science popularizers of the last half-century, Richard Dawkins. In this collection, which features a large number of pieces previously unpublished in the US, editor Gillian Somerscales introduces and contextualizes 41 works by the outspoken and always-interesting author of "The Selfish Gene" and "The Ancestor's Tale," with new notes and comments supplied along the way by Dawkins himself, who strikes in these pages a passionate tone that would have been immediately recognizable to Kepler, and Galileo, and those others. “There is objective truth out there and it is our business to find it,” he writes. “There is mystery but never magic, and mysteries are all the more beautiful for being eventually explained. Things are explicable and it is our privilege to explain them.” Dawkins's book ranges from parodies to polemics to ideological tributes to everybody from Charles Darwin to Carl Sagan to Christopher Hitchens, all of it rendered in gloriously spiky and opinionated prose.
In addition to everything else they are, these three volumes constitute urgent invitations to their readership: think, learn, investigate – before it's too late.