Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 27, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

SCIENCE AT THE TIMES....Calling C.P. Snow:

Scott Eric Kaufman draws my attention to the fact that the New York Times has posted its Notable Books for 2007 list. The list is divided into "Fiction & Poetry" and "Non-Fiction," and Scott correctly notes that the "Fiction & Poetry" books all have terrible blurbs, but I'd like to point out a much larger problem with the list, relating to the "Non-Fiction" category:

There is not a single science book on the list of "Notable Books" for the year.

There are books on history, books on politics, personal memoirs, collections of critical essays, but nothing about science. There are biographies galore, but no biographies of scientists.

Bending over backward to be fair, I'll note that there's a book on the list about the fight against AIDS in Africa, which includes a shard or two of science. Basically, though, the entire list consists of history, memoir, cultural criticism, and (non-science) biography. Quite an eclectic taste those Times book reviewers have, eh?

Kevin Drum 3:14 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (43)

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Scientists don't write books, they write tomes. Who wants to read a tome. Next you'll expect reporting. Accurate reporting. You really are too much.

Posted by: Anon on November 27, 2007 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

But Kevin, why should the NYT be worried about science, now that we're in the End Days? Not to mention that science isn't as kewl as kultural kriticism.

Posted by: DCBob on November 27, 2007 at 3:19 PM | PERMALINK

I'd also like to point out that only a handful of the non-fiction titles do not include a colon. Enough with subtitles!

Posted by: RSA on November 27, 2007 at 3:28 PM | PERMALINK

While I'm not all that surprised about there being no science books on the NYT's list of 100, I am a bit surprised that neither The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins or God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens is on the NYT's list. I'd like to think that both books were somewhat notable in 2007, but I guess such books about atheism are just a dime a dozen. Not.

Posted by: David W. on November 27, 2007 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

They are starting to realize that we don't need science, only God!

Posted by: Gore/Edwards 08 on November 27, 2007 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

Science books are too hard to read. Subatomic physics, moleculer biology, genomes.

I was trying to figure out a subtitle but all the colons have been used.

Posted by: BabbaCambridge on November 27, 2007 at 3:39 PM | PERMALINK

There are plenty of popular books on science that do not read like tomes. Brief reviews of interesting science books appear in places like Scientific American. What books do you think belong on the list, Kevin? Is this yearly NYT list based on sales figures? That would suggest that people aren't reading much science. Is there a shortage of reviews of science books in NYT? Maybe people interested in science just don't read the NYT. It wouldn't be the first place I'd turn for a review of anything scientific. Is the problem that science is being segregated into publications and demographic strata away from places like the NYT?

Posted by: Chuck on November 27, 2007 at 3:40 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe we are in an era when science is passe.

Maybe we are "led" by a bunch of zealots who believe
in god and have no faith in scientific inquiry of any kind.

Maybe readers are turned off by science books because thinking is required.

At any rate, science is possibly one of the reasons we evolve :-)

I guess we are becoming scientifishient..(dumb).

Posted by: Tom Nicholson on November 27, 2007 at 3:41 PM | PERMALINK

I'm surprised "The World Without Us" isn't on the list. It combines science and cultural criticism.

Posted by: Scott on November 27, 2007 at 3:42 PM | PERMALINK

If they'd done well in freshman chemistry, they wouldn't be working for the newspaper.

Posted by: pa on November 27, 2007 at 3:43 PM | PERMALINK

Huh? I'm reading Einstein: His Life and Universe right now, and I'd call it "notable". It's part science lesson, part biography. I think it's well-written and the author went to some trouble to make sure the physics bits are understandable (probably because he had to have them broken down for himself, to be able to write about them!). Even though the title contains a colon.

Hmm. Didn't that come out in 2007?

At any rate, I'd call that a pretty glaring problem with the list.

Posted by: ajw_93 on November 27, 2007 at 3:49 PM | PERMALINK

AGAINST SUBTITLES: A passionate cri de coeur

Posted by: thersites on November 27, 2007 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

I know Kevin likes data, so here's some data. The Notable Books list is culled from books that make it into the Review. If you search for "science and technology" reviews in 2007, you'll find that only twenty books show up.

Of these, a big chunk (six) are biographies or memoirs: James Watson's memoir; Craig Venter's memoir; a father-son memoir about biology; Walter Isaacson's and Jurgen Neffe's biographies of Einstein; a biography of Descartes.

Another big chunk (five) are histories of science: a history of typewriting (technology!); Harriet Washington's Medical Apartheid; a history of vaccines; Michael Frayn's The Human Touch, a work of philosophy, really; and David Standish's Hollow Earth, a history of *imaginary* voyages to the Earth's core.

That leaves Chris Mooney's Storm World; The First Word, on the origins of language; Balance, on balance; Natalie Angier's The Canon; The Physics of the Buffyverse; Freeman Dyson's essays; David Sloan Wilson; and Steven Pinker. Eight books that are not biographies or histories, three from working scientists.

And, of course, Michael Behe's latest on intelligent design.

[FYI, Dawkins was released and reviewed in 2006.]

Posted by: r. on November 27, 2007 at 3:58 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks for the FYI on Dawkins, r. The God Delusion was released in time for the Christmas season last year, as I now recall... ;-)

Posted by: David W. on November 27, 2007 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

Science, schmience, who cares.

What is more important is that there is not a single cat book (about or by)on the list.

I think Inkblot needs to address this specific issue in his INKBLOT FOR PRESIDENT '08 policy position statement.

Posted by: optical weenie on November 27, 2007 at 4:20 PM | PERMALINK

I'm just browsing the list with half an eye, but I caught this in Fiction - "PROGRAMMING THE UNIVERSE: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes On the Cosmos".

The description makes it sound like pop science, but at least science-y (& it's written by an MIT prof). Does that count?

Posted by: raff on November 27, 2007 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

anything by freeman dyson is bound to be worth reading. freeman, richard feynman, and isaac asimov were\are the best science writers i've ever read, including stephen hawking, although isaac is of course a bit dated now.

Posted by: sameoldjeff on November 27, 2007 at 4:41 PM | PERMALINK

But really, Kevin, what science issues are out there these days to write about...

Posted by: Don on November 27, 2007 at 4:49 PM | PERMALINK

Thank you, r., for the data.

Much of the science that's available for the "general reader" is presented as history or biography, because, well, the "general reader" tires easily of hard stuff, and the "human" aspect allows the insertion of a fair amount of fluff. I don't mind this when there's some human question involved -- how did Mendel get such good results? -- but some of the stuff -- "I stopped in to ask Dr. ... about the question and met a tall, boyish looking man with a slight stoop, greying around the temples and wearing ...." -- drives me absolutely nuts. And I'm a pretty general reader, having bailed out of mathematics as a sophomore.

Posted by: David in NY on November 27, 2007 at 4:57 PM | PERMALINK

I'm just browsing the list with half an eye, but I caught this in Fiction - "PROGRAMMING THE UNIVERSE:...

That's in last year's list. And it is in non-fiction.

Not bad for half an eye, though.

Posted by: JS on November 27, 2007 at 5:03 PM | PERMALINK

I'd put Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin on a year's best science books list. She is the autistic woman who designs abbatoirs. In this book, she discusses the biology and mental activities of the brains of normal people, autists, and animals.

Posted by: anandine on November 27, 2007 at 5:21 PM | PERMALINK

There is currently a surge in anti-science sentiment in this country. Science requires too much thinking and questioning. Americans like simple answers to complex questions, like, "Why do they hate us?" Answer: "They hate us because of our freedom" Yeah, right.

But, rather than understanding why people don't like our foreign policy, particularly it's obvious pro-Israel, anti-Arab bias, the pundits like Rush Dimbulb provide simple-minded quasi-answers to difficult questions. Look at the state of popular music - also a regression into simple-minded, monotonal drivel. It's a sign of the times...

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on November 27, 2007 at 5:35 PM | PERMALINK

Released this year -- as I know, for Amazon delivered it to my desk only this morning -- is Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters, profusely and beautifully illustrated by Carl Buell. (I've cheated and looked at the pictures before reading the text. If you don't know Carl, he is the Rembrandt of palaeontology.)

Forget what the Times thinks. Treat yourself to this book.

Posted by: Mrs Tilton on November 27, 2007 at 5:39 PM | PERMALINK

There are no books about philosophy, and you don't see me complaining, do you?

Posted by: Scu on November 27, 2007 at 6:00 PM | PERMALINK

There are lots of science books published. College students buy them for $125 and read parts of them. Apparently the hard work of doing college level science is not what the popular best sellers are about. This is probably true for accounting, geophysics, and climatology as well. That having been said, the scientific and mathematical illiteracy of the average reporter can be astonishing. They are still typing the word "exponential" as if it means "much, much greater," when in fact it does not.

Posted by: Bob G on November 27, 2007 at 6:02 PM | PERMALINK

Where's Hitchens' book? It, unlike Dawkins, is a 2007 release. Ditto for Victor Stegner.

For that matter, where's some of this year's tomes on BushCo, in the history area?

Did David Brooks compile the nonfiction list?

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on November 27, 2007 at 6:09 PM | PERMALINK

But science books contain facts. And if there's one thing we've learned from the of the Bush administration it's that facts don't matter.

To paraphrase the sentiment expressed in Idiocracy, 'science is for fags'.

Does this mean even the NYT can be cowed by the braying masses of morons who hate science, facts, and reason? Or is it just an Inconvenient Fact that there have been no books on science that have caught the interest of the public in the last year?

Posted by: Augustus on November 27, 2007 at 6:18 PM | PERMALINK

Considering half this country thinks science IS fiction the list doesn't surprise. As r. noted above, there just weren't that many science & technology books reviewed which is a bit of a sad commentary on it's own.

Posted by: tom.a on November 27, 2007 at 7:28 PM | PERMALINK

As a scientist who reads a lot of nonfiction, including some popular science books, I'd say that the average popular science book is pretty terrible (worse than the average history or serious biography; nothing could be worse than the average political book). There are, of course, some real classics out there (here are a couple of examples), some of them fairly recent, though I can't think of one in the last five years or so offhand.
I tend to buy used (often rather old) and remaindered books, so I can't comment on what came out this year, though as noted upthread there was the much-praised Isaacson biography of Einstein (which is, of course, technically biography rather than a science book).

Posted by: Warren Terra on November 27, 2007 at 7:47 PM | PERMALINK

Hey, Warren, I was just thinking that the Eighth Day of Creation was maybe the best science book I remembered reading(althouh maybe didn't quite finish, but almost, it's long). And there it is on your list. More recently read one of the books on Andrew Wiles' solution of Fermat's last theorem (Fermat's Enigma, or something) that was quite good, though with some fluff.

Posted by: David in NY on November 27, 2007 at 8:09 PM | PERMALINK

Over at the "Living the Scientific Life" blog at scienceblogs.com, they are having the same conversation, with some suggested 'best science books of 2007' included by the blogger & in comments. Long url is:



Posted by: anon on November 27, 2007 at 8:12 PM | PERMALINK

Not particularly surprising. Very little popular writing is by the scientific side of the "two cultures" divide.

Even if something is written, it is unlikely to be read by the humanities side of the divide. Simply a different and uncomfortable way of thinking.

Posted by: Adam on November 27, 2007 at 8:28 PM | PERMALINK
, I am a bit surprised that neither The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins or God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens is on the NYT's list. I'd like to think that both books were somewhat notable in 2007, but I guess such books about atheism are just a dime a dozen.

The God Delusion was reviewed by the New York Times on 10/22/2006, and thus ineligible for consideration for the 2007 list, which was drawn "from books reviewed since the Holiday Books issue of Dec. 3, 2006."

If you want to complain that it didn't make the 2006 list, that might be more valid, though a bit belated.

Posted by: cmdicely on November 27, 2007 at 9:40 PM | PERMALINK

This article by Chris Hedges helps explain why America is in decline. It may also explain our book-reading habits.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on November 27, 2007 at 10:34 PM | PERMALINK

What do you call this?

THE INDIAN CLERK. By David Leavitt. (Bloomsbury, $24.95.) Leavitt explores the intricate relationship between the Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy and a poor, self-taught genius from Madras, stranded in England during World War I.

It's listed under fiction, but suddenly Ramanujan and Hardy don't count as science?

Posted by: Zach on November 27, 2007 at 11:27 PM | PERMALINK

Warren, I've got both The Making of the Atomic Bomb and the Rhodes companion book about the H-bomb, as well as a very interesting foray by him into criminal sociology, Why They Kill.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on November 28, 2007 at 12:26 AM | PERMALINK

To write a good science book you need to use math; to write a popular science book you can't use any.

(c.f. the number of people who cried 'uncle' in the comments of the monday night Shalizi link on global warming)

Posted by: Kenny on November 28, 2007 at 12:42 AM | PERMALINK

Not surprising from a newspaper that thinks that John Tierney is a science reporter.

Posted by: CKR on November 28, 2007 at 9:01 AM | PERMALINK


That would be Freeman Dyson 'Global warming isn't real. I know because I know all about climate modelling, and the models are cooked'-- that Freeman Dyson?

Dyson has some great inspiring ideas that make great science fiction novels (see Ringworld by Larry Niven). Or great speculative projects (travel to the stars using atomic bombs: Project Orion).

I'm sure he is a good physicist (but I don't know).

But what he's basically done is given a whole pile of ammunition to global warming deniers, on the principle that he knows more about the models than the 1,000 or so climate scientists who have spent, literally, decades working in the field.

It's like when Bjorn Lomborg is described as an economist, and then spouts things which are economic nonsense.

Posted by: Valuethinker on November 28, 2007 at 9:28 AM | PERMALINK

Maybe another good analogy for Freeman Dyson is Edward Teller, who used his scientific credentials as an innovator with the hydrogen bomb, to advocate a number of very dark and dangerous technologies.

In particular, he persuaded President Reagan to back the Star Wars missile defence, predicated on orbital X Ray lasers, which he and other scientists knew wouldn't work. (he should have known, anyways).

Posted by: Valuethinker on November 28, 2007 at 9:29 AM | PERMALINK

No The World Without Us? I haven't finished the book yet, but so far it is darned good -- and it kills off New York City right at the start of the book: that should have caught the attention of the New York Times.

Posted by: William Slattery on November 28, 2007 at 10:24 AM | PERMALINK

Chances Are...: Adventures in Probability by Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan. Great for precocious kids and adults. Should be required reading for the medieval idiots that run our country.

Posted by: MMMM on November 28, 2007 at 11:26 AM | PERMALINK

Global warming, stem cells, AIDS, so many of the major issues of the day are rooted in science and technology that the lack of interest in the subject is sad, possibly tragic.

Worse, perhaps, is the attitude towards scientific/technologic advance shown by liberals, including you, Kevin. Not all of those who want to go back to a strong space program are right wing nutcases, as you suggest in your coverage of last night's Republican debates.

My only objection to a Mars landing in 2017 is why we have to wait ten years. NASA's earliest plans for a manned landing had it happening in the 1980s.

Yes, I know, we should be speding the money on problems here on Earth, not sending it out into space. Well, Duh! Dollar bills are lousy fuel. Those dollars get spent here doing the research, buying the equipment, and training the people. A lot of it gets spent with minority- and women-run businesses. (There was a major downsizing of the Black business sector when the Apollo program shut down early and with no successor program in the early 1970s.)

If it makes you feel better, think of a manned space program as a major expansion of domestic spending that can/will have a large minority set-aside for sub-sub-etc. contractors and that CANNOT be outsourced out of the U.S. (How much of the shuttles are manufactured outside the U.S.?)

And that's not even including the impact on technologic advance that such rograms always have. The PC and a lot of modern medical rtechnology grew out of the manned space program. It was much more than velcro and Tang.

Posted by: Lew Wolkoff on November 29, 2007 at 9:38 AM | PERMALINK



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