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జనరంజక విజ్ఞాన సాహిత్యం యొక్క లక్షణాలు

Posted by శ్రీనివాస చక్రవర్తి Friday, July 16, 2010
జనరంజక విజ్ఞాన సాహిత్యం యొక్క లక్షణాలు

జనరంజక విజ్ఞానం ఎలా ఉండాలి, దాని లక్షణాలు ఏంటి అన్న అంశం మీద ఇటీవల రాసిన ఇంగ్లీష్ వ్యాసం ఇది. (వీలు చూసుకుని దీన్ని తెలుగులోకి అనువదించి మళ్లీ పోస్ట్ చేస్తాను.)

Taking up the question of how to present science more simply and effectively, lets consider some general guidelines. We can see these features form part of the work of some of the best science writers. Most of this is just common sense. But if we put it together as a bunch of points, I thought it can initiate a fruitful discussion.


1. Choice of topics
We all agree that choice of topic is very important. For popular science to be effective, the most important thing is it should MAKE SENSE to the reader. The topic, the question that is raised, must seem meaningful. Otherwise all our deliberations to answer that question would seem aburd and irrelevant. For example, a topic like “The Effect of calmodulin antagonist berbaminederivative- EBB on hepatoma in vi tro and in vivo” is not going to make waves in popular science literature. Whereas something like “Why do we laugh?” or “Can humans live without sleeping?” seem more meaningful, seem to challenge the common knowledge of life, seem to provoke thought etc, which are certainly some of the objectives of popular science.

2. A Story-like narrative:
I first learnt that science can be presented like a story when I read the short book by Asimov called “How did we find out that the earth is round?” The idea of earth being round is something that seems something so ordinary and familiar in the present times, that we may not even consider it as a serious subject of science. But Asimov takes it up and presents it as if it is one of the greatest scientific revolutions.

He starts off with the ancient notions of about the structure of the world, gracefully moves on to the more serious speculations of Greek philosphers, touches upon the logic of Anaximander, and makes those ideas more concrete by bringing in the calculations of Erotosthenes. He then goes on to narrate the story of Columbus, whose voyages are based on the idea of Earth being round, and tells the story of Magellan who actually, for the first time, discovered that the Earth is indeed round. Thus weaving together many different stories, from ancient cultures, from philosophy, from science proper, and from history, and constantly showing the undercurrent of an important scientific question in all those diverse endeavors, he makes a wonderful popular scientific feast to the reader.
And Asimov does it with pretty much any topic of science. Often some of his non-fiction books have hardly any pictures, without too many subsections, have long chunks of continuous text, but make the reader glued to the book, because there is a continuous thread of a story. As in a pulp fiction novel, the reader wants to know “what happens next?” If we can bring this quality into our science writing we can congratulate ourselves.


3. Science logic and not science facts
In India often people think that knowing science is knowing a lot of “scientific facts”: who discovered X-rays, or ‘what is a crescograph?’ etc But the logic of science, that recurrent sequential progression from a question to an answer, which throws up another question an so on …. does not seem to be emphasized by writers of Indian science text books.
A good writer should know the background of the reader, and explain scientific phenomena unabiguously. Each concept requires a certain spade work and a stepwise build-up. Without such preparation if the writer just throws a complex, convoluted sentence, it leaves the student perplexed.

For example, one such a jewel from 7th grade ICS Enviromental Science (EVS) textbook:
“The Exosphere is too thin to be considered part of Earth’s protective atmosphere and consists mainly of hydrogen and helium. This layer is very thin in the upper part but even very high temperatures have little effect on spacecrafts.” (!!!)

There was no mention of atmosphere or its layers in the textbook prior to this. It just says that exosphere is thin, which gives the impression that it must be a cool region. Then it talks about high temperatures! And finally that those high temperatures have little effect on the spacecrafts! Normally high temperatures MUST have effect on spacecrafts. But then how high are those temps, and how much temp can spacecrafts withstand? First of all, why mention spacecrafts at all in this context?

So it is a just a jumble of incoherent statements without any elaboration or logical connection.

This is exactly what must be avoided in a popular science book/article.

4. Draw from the background and experience of the reader

Since the aim of popular science is to reach the common reader, we must first go out of the way to get the reader INTERESTED.

This is like what happens in our BT101 course!!! It is offered to non-biotech btech first year students by bt dept. Now these chaps have taken other (non-BT) branches probably because they didn’t like biology. And they are forced to take bio. Now if the instructors don’t make an special effort to present bio 1) in a way that makes sense to a non-biol student, 2) and get him/her sufficiently interested in biol, by showing how biology has a place in their respective branches (mech, ee, chem etc) or how knowledge of those branches can be applied in bio, the course will be a failure. And indeed it has been so for several years in a row! But often the instructors just dont believe in the need for this reorientation and just go and “do their stuff” and what have we? A series of formal lectures on genetics, molecular biology and so on. Students just pray that the classroom is comfortable enough to sleep!


5. Blend of “right brain” and “left brain”
We often see science writers constantly blending the science part (the logic, analysis, experiments, data etc which pertain, so to speak, to the “left brain”) with stories, biographical sketches, emotional sagas, history, legends, folklore, interesting imagery etc (the “right brain” stuff). A right balance of the two, without overdoing either, seems to be a good recipe for lovable popular science.

6. Use of Humor
Science need not be all stiff upper-lipped and humor, in right measure, indeed has a place. Good science writers often make intelligent use of even cartoons. For some nice cartoons on genetics see:
http://www.sciencecartoonsplus.com/gallery/dna/index.php#


7. Use of Examples

Use of right examples can never be overemphasized.
An excellent example is George Gamov’s “Mr Tompkins in Wonderland.” This classic on popular science seeks to explain the concepts of relativity. A run-of-the-mill account of relativity starts from Galilean relativity, Newtonian concepts of absolute space and time, the search for ether, Michleson-Morley expt, followed by Einstein’s axioms, time-dilation etc etc. An average reader might find it rather unpalatable. But Gamov creates an interesting wonderland, not too different from that of Lewis Carrol’s Alice, and puts one Mr Tompkins in it. The speed limit in this world is so low, that relativistic effects are seen even at normal city speeds. Moving cycles look shrunken in their direction of motion. People who travel in trains remain young, while people who stay off the trains grow old rapidly. That’s an unparalleled use of imagery and example to illustrate a profound scientific idea.

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