Saturday, January 24, 2009

Reading popular science

I'm reading Dark Cosmos: In Search of Our Universe's Missing Mass and Energy by Dan Hooper. In the preface the author writes about reading popular science:

/.../I still read popular physics books. I don't read them to learn new things about physics anymore, however. I read them for inspiration. It is easy to forget how exciting and incredible modern science truly is. Scientific articles found in academic journals very rarely capture the sense of wonder and awe that originally motivated me to become a physicist.

This made me think. Why do I read popular science books? Of course, if it's not about physics I'm still reading them to learn new things. I'm curious about the world, as much as ever, and I don't want to limit myself to only knowing one field.

If I read popular physics books, it's usually to remind myself of things that I would not otherwise often think about, or to see things I once learned from a different angle. Sometimes it's not mostly for the physics itself, but for the context -- I read The Physics of Star Trek not to learn about physics, but actually to learn about how physics is treated in Star Trek. I read Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics for the anecdotes about how physics is treated by Hollywood.

This particular book, Dark Cosmos is of course exactly about the field I work in, and that I'm reading the academic journal articles from. Still, I didn't buy it to hold on to some sense of wonder, but specifically for inspiration of how to explain the topic. I already know the data, and I know most of the anecdotes, but I want to get better at explaining it and telling others about it. By reading and listening to how my colleagues do it, I hope to catch some tricks of the trade. (The sense of wonder is also a good thing, of course!)

The quote above also made me think about what it was that motivated me to become a physicist. What was it, really? Sometimes it feels mostly like a series of coincidences, but I think I definitely was heading in this general direction from a relatively early age. Still, it's fun to think about what actually inspired me in science when I was still in school. I hope to return to this in later blog posts!

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