Non-Fiction Reviews

Communicating Science: Professional, Popular, Literary

(2009) Nicholas Russell , Cambridge University Press, £18.99 / Can$16.95 / US$12.95, trdpbk, 323 pp, ISBN 978-0-521-13172-8


Most scientists into SF are acutely aware of the genre’s ability to turn young SF aficionados on to science. After all SF is a genre that (unlike its speculative fiction cousin fantasy) has at its heart, or at least wraps up its fiction in a veneer of, science. There is even some quantitative evidence for this in terms of science graduate surveys and book market polls, and not least because broad-based SF conventions, such as British Eastercons, Worldcons and most Eurocons (unlike cons devoted to a single TV show), feature a science programme stream. Indeed, a number of terms associated with science actually have their origins in SF: 'blast off', ‘robot’, 'teleportation', 'extraterrestrial' and ‘genetic engineering’, to name a few. If nothing else SF engenders the ‘sense of wonder’ (sensawunda) common to both the genre and those who choose to study science.

And so we find that SF is used in science education TV programmes and museum science exhibitions as a vehicle to convey the science message. All well and good, so how do science communicators view SF as a tool and how does it fit into overall science communication or indeed compare with other methods of science communication?

Nicholas Russell trained as a botanist, has worked as a freelance science writer, and is currently based at a London university working on science communication, now gives us his latest book called Communicating Science.

The book is essentially divided into five parts. The first looks at how scientists communicate science to other scientists. The second examines the whys and wherefores science communication to the masses, the third how this is done through the mass media. Finally parts four and five look at science in the arts which includes a chapter on science fiction itself (though SF crops up elsewhere too).

I did like the book’s first part on professional science communication, which for me is where this book is decidedly strongest. The parts on press and the mass media, and science in the arts, were written very much from an Anglophone nation perspective that did not include science communication in other countries. For example, the Academic Olympics features on Romania’s national TV news but you never see it on British TV. The sections on the press were charmingly idealistic but not always pragmatic. For instance there was a call for the need for higher standards but not explained how this might happen given that editors/publishers call the shots. The weakest part of the book focussed on science in the arts and here the chapter on science fiction will be of most interest to Concatenation’s regular visitors, albeit it being presented from what appears to be ‘mundane’ – to use an SF term – and ‘literary’ perspectives. Like it or not, currently at least, Star Trek reaches and inspires more people (by orders of magnitude) than Orwell's 1984.

The chapter of SF starts well enough with an invented dialogue between an SF reader and a mundane who cannot understand the other’s fascination for a childish genre, but who is informed that great writers – such as the Nobel-winning Doris Lessing – have written SF. The chapter then properly begins noting that SF is largely ignored my literary critics and it is suggested that this is because of its mass appeal. Omitting proto-SF the history of science is quickly charted from the middle of the 20th century. Brian Stableford’s comments on the genre are recounted before we delve into what is in effect an essay an English lit student, or an arts critic, might present on the different types of SF, and so we get paragraphs on eschatological and evolutionary fantasies before jumping in to the mid-20th century divergent trends in Britain and the US as well as how the genre in these two countries came together. Russell also has a sub-section bravely entitled ‘The meaning of science fiction’. Its conclusions are, shall we say, a tad amorphous and along the way we learn that there were ‘three Star Trek series’ (sic). The subsection concludes with ‘what makes science fiction successful is its soap banality. It does what television does best; develop exploitable fictional packages for popular consumption.’ The next subsection deals with SF after the classic period (1960s onwards) in which SF fragmented, and we saw the emergence of computer and fantasy role-playing games and then cyberpunk. The chapter ends with a few pages on science fiction and science communication. Much of this is devoted to Fred Hoyle.

I have to say had I written this chapter it would have been markedly different and even had I just written the last section I would have covered different ground. For example, for myself the use as a vehicle for science awareness of Jurassic Park and scientists’ different reaction to this book and film on both sides of the Atlantic encapsulates much of the essence as to the pros and cons of using SF in science communication. I would also have striven to include some quantitative data as to the size of the SF market and I certainly would have included Carl Sagan (who does not get a mention). Russell’s own conclusion is that: ‘to render science fiction respectable, it seems to need some high-order re-engineering and re-invention to allow abstract ideas and human stories not just to exist, but to enter mutually satisfying relationships with each other.’ (Make of that what you will but perhaps best not to spend too much time on it.)

And so you probably will not be surprised by my suggesting that science communication students need to question the opinions presented in this book. You might also want to extend this questioning to some of the references. I noticed that the House of Commons Select report on science publishing 2004 is misattributed to the House of Lords report (notwithstanding which Commons and Lords Select committees have a different brief), a mix-up that does not exactly engender confidence. The book also completely omits the work of learned societies and professional science bodies in communicating science to both the public as well as to policy-makers: though Britain’s academy for science gets a mention.

Yet science communication itself is an imperfect craft and so it is perhaps appropriate that this book has its debatable points (and even flaws) as – with a good tutor – these can spark debate. With the very firm caveat of this work absolutely needing to be part of a broader reading base, this book succeeds in its goal of being an aid to students in science communication. To sum up, this book makes an interesting contribution to the topic of science communication and to that end is worthy. Though while it is perhaps a little unfair to unduly criticise this work for its omissions, my own take on the topic (having had a career in science communication) is somewhat different. Therefore readers should make their own mind up, but then if the book does encourage its readers to question, and think, then in a very real sense the author has done us a service.

Jonathan Cowie

A version of this review written for the benefit of life scientists has appeared in the journal Biologist.

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