In which fiction infiltrates fact

Popular science, as a genre of non-fiction, seems to be doing a brisk trade. Although a publishing insider one told me that the halcyon days of million pound advances for popsci authors are long over, she did add that it was still selling well and considered to be a much safer bet than, say, fiction. As if anything could be worse!

My brief internet search to try to find some relative sales numbers failed (largely because T-mobile, the ISP in my German hotel room, prohibits me visiting many foreign websites – perhaps a wire has crossed somewhere and it thinks I’m in China). As an aside, I was fascinated to see on the Wikipedia article that of the 75 examples of “Notable popularizers of science” listed, only two were woman. If anyone with a Wikipedia editorial bent can think of any others besides Olivia Judson and Kirsten Sanford, it would be great to rectify this glaring deficiency. But that’s another story.

So, popular science: I don’t read it very often, but I’ve enjoyed the authors I have read, in particular Steve Jones, Armand Leroi, Oliver Sachs, Janna Levin (ah! another woman) and William Calvin to name a few. And people on the Tube – my unscientific metric of London literary habits – seem to indulge on occasion as well. I was surprised, however, to receive an invitation from Science London, the Central London chapter of the British Science Association (formerly the British Association for the Advancement of Science, for those who’ve been hiding in a cave from swine flu for the past few weeks), to discuss my novel Experimental Heart at their May popsci book club.

In the interests of full disclosure, I wrote back meekly to alert her that my book was actually fiction and not popular science. She replied that the organization was about popularizing science, whatever the format might be, so they thought it was okay to be “fluid” on their interpretation of the term.

I haven’t felt so chuffed since that magic moment when Sara Abdulla was chosen to be on a panel selecting the world’s best popsci books. After the others had mooted such worthy causes as Origin of Species, The Double Helix, Pluto’s Republic and so on, she stood up and named three works of lab lit fiction — which possibly irritated the organizers no end but caused a spontaneous cheer from the Labliterati section of the audience that evening.

The Science London website hasn’t been updated yet, but as I understand it, the discussion will take place on 26 May at 7 PM at the 5th View Cafe (top floor), Waterstones, Piccadilly. (If the venue changes, I’ll let you know.) And I have a tough act to follow: our very own Brian Clegg talked about his new book Ecologic there just last week.

So if you live in or near London and would like to come along on the night, do pick up a copy. Or for those who prefer to travel light, this might be an appropriate time to mention that the novel is now available as an eBook for the Kindle, an edition that works on the iPhone or iPod Touch after installing the appropriate app.

I look forward to seeing some of you on the 26th!

Handy: An American fan shows off the goods

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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18 Responses to In which fiction infiltrates fact

  1. Richard P. Grant says:

    Oh you’re joking. iTunes sez (re Kindle) ‘The item you’ve requested is not available in the UK Store.’
    No fair. want.

  2. Jennifer Rohn says:

    It was my understanding you could order from – with no pesky international delivery charges. Or are there copyright/DRM issues as with the Sony Reader store, that will only take transactions from people residing in the country in question? How disheartening.

  3. Jennifer Rohn says:

    As another digression, does anyone know if it’s possible to tell my browser, Firefox, to pretend that I’m in the UK? As much as I enjoy getting permanently diverted to and and reading skyscraper adverts here along the lines of Frier Zugang zum Nature Arkiv fur Universitaten, it’s making me feel even more homesick.

  4. Richard P. Grant says:

    It’s the Kindle application itself I can’t download.
    I was going to scab the book off a friend ducks

  5. Richard P. Grant says:

    Thinks…. yes. I’ll email you.

  6. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I guess it makes sense that you can’t get the Kindle app here — the Kindle isn’t available yet, is it? I do think there are some particularly vicious copyright laws that prevent this sort of otherwise logical dissemination.

  7. Richard P. Grant says:

    It annoys me–it’s like the bloody DVD region codes. Global village my piglet.

  8. Bob O'Hara says:

    I hadn’t seen that the BAAS had changed its name, to the same initials as an old motorcycle maker. Does this mean that we’ve advanced far enough in science?

  9. Jennifer Rohn says:

    According to their website, you are not allowed to refer the organization by its acronym! Tsk, tsk, Bob. When I saw that, I thought – good luck. Cancer Research UK also tried to enforce an acronym ban, but lots of people still call it by the spectacularly ugly term “CRUK”, which sounds like the Scandinavian for dried mud between the treads of your shoe soles.
    I suspect the new name had a lot to do always being beaten by British Airways on the Google search.
    For us biologists, BSA means only one thing. And it comes from something that goes Moo.

  10. Richard P. Grant says:

    According to their website, you are not allowed to refer the organization by its acronym
    because it sounds like what sheep do?

  11. Richard P. Grant says:

    Seeing as that joke fell flat, I propose the formation of a new group, or movement, or wiki or something. We can call it the IAOPWTTTTPAIAVSTI.
    That’s the International Association of People who think that trying to prevent acronyms is a very silly thing indeed.
    Or Eierfourteepavingslab for short.

  12. Samurai Scientist says:

    Natalie Angier should be on the list of popsci gals.

  13. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Oh, that’s right. I was trying to think if the Wikipedia list was short on women because nobody had added them to the article, or if there just weren’t many. I’ve been thinking hard about it for the last few days and confess I can’t think of any more (at least in the sphere of popular science books, as opposed to broadcasters). And I have no idea why that might be. It doesn’t strike me as particularly macho — women are amply represented in science and in journalism, so why is the combination so lethal?

  14. Stephen Curry says:

    If anyone with a Wikipedia editorial bent can think of any others besides Olivia Judson and Kirsten Sanford, it would be great to rectify this glaring deficiency.
    Can’t see the link on the Wikipedia page that you refer to but what about Alice Roberts or Kathy Sykes (though her series on Alternative Therapies came in from some flak from Ben Goldacre, if I recall correctly)?

  15. Frank Norman says:

    How about Georgina Ferry?
    Shame about the book discussion – same night as the RI science quiz.

  16. Kristi Vogel says:

    The link above goes to the Wikipedia page for the Popular Science magazine, but you can easily get to the popular science page from there. What a weird list, in any case. Bernd Heinrich isn’t listed, for one thing, and he’s a scientist who has written a number of excellent, accessible books on animal behavior and adaptation.
    Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is a biological anthropologist who has written several books on primates and evolution, including The Langurs of Abu and Mother Nature. She’s also been a consultant for several science/nature TV programs.

  17. Maxine Clarke says:

    Kindle- no personal experience, but apparently available only in the US as yet. However I do know an Australian who bought one on e-Bay and is able to read things on it….
    Populisers of science: Dava Sobel, Lisa Jardine, Brenda Maddox, Mary Gribbin (with John), Fran Balkwill, et al. (Georgina Ferry and Natalie Angier good catches.)

  18. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Those are all great suggestions – when I have a moment I plan to edit the Wikipedia page (thanks, Kristi, for correcting the confusion about where the list actually is). In particular, I’m embarrassed to have forgotten about Sobel.

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