Last year, around this time, I posted a rant about the lack of science books in the New York Times‘s “Notable Books of 2007.” While I was out of town last week, they posted this year’s list. So, have things improved?
Yes and no. They do, in fact, have two books that are unquestionably science books on the list: THE DRUNKARD’S WALK: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow (which I also reviewed), and THE SUPERORGANISM: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies, by Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson.
By my count, they list 52 non-fiction titles, meaning that a whole 3.8% of the list is given over to science. Woo-hoo!
(They list an additional five books that probably have some science content, but from the descriptions do not sound like they are primarily about science: The Big Sort, Blood Matters, Descartes’ Bones, Predictably Irrational, and Traffic. I’m being really generous, and counting economics as a science. These figures are more or less in line with the historical trend.)
To put that in perspective, they include six books that appear to be memoirs by people with miserable pasts, and three literary biographies. Which tells you where science rates with the book reviewers of the Paper of Record.
I’m not entirely sure what I think would be a reasonable number of science titles in the 100 most “notable” books of the year, but I think I’d like there to be more books about science than depressing stories about alcoholism and child abuse.
I’m being snarky, but it’s hard not to be. We quite literally would not have the world we do without modern science, and yet, as a general matter, it’s not something that is considered interesting by people who consider themselves intellectuals. Take a look at Amazon’s top ten science books, for example– don’t you think there might be a book or two on there that rates more notice than a book about the Best Picture nominees of 1967?
(I suppose I should be grateful that there’s nothing that jumps out as quite as irritatingly as Tina Brown writing about Princess Diana…)
My science reading has been somewhat curtailed this year by my science writing, but even so, I managed to find more good science books than the entire Times reviewing staff. Physics for Future Presidents is as worthy of a read as any of the host of books offering Deep Thoughts about our Middle East entanglements. Richard Reeves’s Rutherford biography was a great read, though evidently not weighty enough to be Notable. I’ve got a copy of The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn sitting in front of me, and it looks really interesting, and you might think a physics book by a Nobel laureate would be worth a look, especially with the endless LHC hype of recent years. And that’s just books on physics– there are bookstore shelves groaning under the weight of books on the life sciences that I don’t have time to read.
I firmly believe that this is a big part of why we’re messed up as a society– the most ostentatiously intellectual people in the country don’t think of science as something to take seriously. Alcoholic memoirs are essential reading, but attempting to understand the basic principles on which the universe operates is just too complicated for the book-reading public. And they’re the educated elite– I don’t even want to think about what Firstname the Working-Class Occupation is reading.