I saw something the other day by Neil de Grasse Tyson, explaining that anybody in the sciences who popularises the field is usually not regarded as a ‘serious’ scientist.
He explained that even astrophysics – his field – is at best ‘neutral’ in such attitudes. I recall an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon’s childhood science populariser, “Professor Proton” (Bob Newhart!) said much the same thing – underscoring the fact that this attitude is well enough known to field mention in fiction.
Actually, that’s true of all the intellectual pursuits. Certainly here in New Zealand there is a strong sense that anybody who writes popular history, for instance, is not merely failing to do ‘serious’ history, but must by definition be incapable of it (although on my experience the intellectual history community still feels so threatened by popular writing in their field they have to perform like imbeciles to tear it down).
The reality is that the best writers of accessible popular work in a field are usually also thoroughly qualified in it. Some – I’m thinking here of Stephen Hawking – have not merely contributed to that field, they’ve re-defined it. Others divert their careers into popularising, thus truncating a potential contribution to their discipline to do so. Remember Patrick Moore, Britain’s TV astronomer for more than half a century? Well, he was actually an astronomer, and among other things worked on mapping the edges of the moon in pre-space days – parts of the far side are visible thanks to a slight wobble, libration, that brings them into view.
Other writers popularise – well, everything. I’m thinking of Isaac Asimov, who was a biochemist by profession but was such a talented all-round total genius he was able to write popular works describing everything from the Bible to history to all the sciences. That’s apart from his science fiction, his mystery stories, and his very clever (and rude) limericks.
My take is that the people who popularise ‘complex’ stuff, like the sciences – or the social sciences, or any of the things that are often upheld as somehow inaccessibly difficult, like maths – not only have to know the stuff backwards and inside out, need to know the stuff to greater degree than those who merely master aspects of it to suit the academy. That’s because they have to be able to explain it in basic terms. They also have to be able to master writing (or TV presentation) in ways that aren’t required by the academy for intellectual ‘cred’.
The popularisers, in short, have to show deeper knowledge of the field – and wider talent – than those who merely meet the narrow definition of ‘intellectual quality’.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016