The fairy tales of science : a study of popular science books




Meyer, Anna Jane

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A visit to any major bookstore reveals a group of books that fit within the genre entitled ‘Popular Science’. On these shelves, a diverse collection of texts can be found, on topics as varied as evolution, space travel, astronomy, biography and science history. Defined here as ‘books about science which do not require a specialist knowledge in the subject of the book in order to be read, enjoyed and understood’, popular science books are a significant science communication medium. Despite this, and the apparent recent increase in the popularity of these books, little critical evaluation of the genre exists. A reason given for this is that the popular science book genre is very diverse, making analysis difficult. In this thesis, two avenues of research were undertaken to begin to aid this situation. First, a study was carried out to identify and characterise the sub-genres that exist within the popular science book genre. This revealed that the genre can be divided into 12 distinct categories, each with unique defining features. A ‘diagram of relationships’ for the categories within the genre was also developed. Following this, the features of a group of bestsellers in one of the identified categories, ‘Stories of Scientific Endeavours or Events’, was investigated. From this, a list of common characteristics of successful popular science books was compiled for this category. The results of both lines of research were then applied and exemplified in the production of an ‘artifact of science communication’ - a new, full-length popular science book on ancient DNA research: Hunting the Double Helix: How DNA is solving puzzles of the past (published by Allen & Unwin in 2005).






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