From somber Silent Spring to creative Cosmos, author's style can make difference in selling science, says Cornell researcher

SAN FRANCISCO – In 1962, Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring , a pioneering exposure of the hazards of the pesticide DDT, became one of the most influential books in the history of science and helped set the stage for the environmental movement. But the book had modest sales.

In 1980, Carl Sagan's book Cosmos , an overview of how science and civilization grew up together, based on his television series of the same name, sold 900,000 copies in its 50 weeks on the Publishers Weekly best-seller list, phenomenal for a science book in its time.

What separated the two? Marketing.

"An author's style and personality and the presence he or she brings to a best-selling science book are generally the main factors in making it a best seller," says Bruce Lewenstein, associate professor of communication and science and technology studies at Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y. "The prominence of a science book author's personality has grown in the past 20 years," he says. And that alone can account for a book being a best seller instead of just influential.

Lewenstein will discuss "What Science Books Sell Big?" at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the Hilton San Francisco today (Feb. 19, 3 p.m.- 6 p.m.). His talk is part of a seminar, "What Makes a Science Book Become a Best Seller?" Lewenstein notes that although best sellers and influential books can appeal both to scientists and the general public – like Stephen Hawking's best-selling A Brief History of Time – in the main, the non-specialist general reader is attracted to best-selling titles; scientists and those with a close interest in science tend to read books that Lewenstein classifies as influential. That is why, he says, best-selling books about science – whether the subject is space or sex -- can make their authors rich and famous – whereas the "influential" book's major accomplishment is in educating the public.

But both types of science book, he says, have a major importance in acting as a link between the science community and the world at large. "Science books have been very important in helping the scientific community hold itself together as a community and linking the scientific community with the broader culture," he says.

Since World War II, a number of science books have joined the ranks of best sellers by using sex, exploration or a clear authorial presence as a main selling point, he says. But despite the alluring subject matter found in some science best sellers and award winners, the importance of science books generally has been overlooked when compared to the authority of the scholarly journal in the world of science. Yet, he says, science books, from best-selling popular works to textbooks, play a significant role in the public's view of science and even in a scientist's daily work.

Lewenstein identifies four categories of science books, although, he says, they blur into each other: books important in public culture (prize winners and best sellers); books that are influential because of their content; textbooks; and books used in daily science.

Intellectual culture regards Pulitzer Prize winners or National Book Award winners as important, and some of them become best sellers, says Lewenstein. Only two science books had won the Pulitzer prior to 1978, when Sagan, the late David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences at Cornell, wrote the prize-winning Dragons of Eden . But over the next two decades, 12 other science books won the Pulitzer, including Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach (1980) and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel (1998).

Even science books that were not fully understood – or even read – have made it onto the Publishers Weekly best-seller list. A case in point: Human Sexual Response by William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Lewenstein says, "It is likely that many purchasers bought the book expecting something different and never really pursued the detailed research reports in the books." But even if science best sellers and prize winners are hard to comprehend, Lewenstein asserts, they still obtain a status in public culture that gives the books' audiences a shared experience. More influential, but less popular, science books have even shaped the way scientists think about or discuss older disciplines. Books such as E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology (1975) and James Gleick's Chaos: Making a New Science (1987) were widely read and talked about, but did not reach the top of the best-seller lists. These two books have today brought together research and ideas that have helped to create new scientific disciplines.

"Textbooks also are tremendously important for science because they convey knowledge to the next generation, and that, in a sense, is how the culture of science is conveyed," says Lewenstein. Knowledge from a textbook, he says, can also pass on a tradition of learning due only to circumstance. For example, Sears and Zamansky's College Physics (1947) was aimed at engineering students. As a result, students who have studied physics at major U.S. universities over the past 50 years have learned 20th century physics "as a sort of add-on, or afterthought, apart from classical physics," Lewenstein asserts.

Science-Oriented Best Sellers 1948-1988

[From Publishers Weekly compilations]

Date     Place

1948     4     Alfred Kinsey et al., Sexual Behavior in the
               Human Male
1950     5     Thor Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki
1951     6     Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us
         9     Thor Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki
1952     4     Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us
1953     3     Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female
1958     8     Thor Heyerdahl, Aku-Aku
1966     2     William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Human
               Sexual Response
1975     4     Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man
1976     9     Shere Hite, The Hite Report: A Nationwide Survey
               of Female Sexuality
1977     7     Carl Sagan, Dragons of Eden
1980     2     Carl Sagan, Cosmos
1981     5     Carl Sagan, Cosmos
1988     3     Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
1989     6     David Macaulay, The Way Things Work
        13     Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
1992    30+    Carl Sagan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
1994    24     Richard Preston, The Hot Zone
        26     Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell
               Curve:Intelligence and Class Structure in
               American Life
1995    14     Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence
1996    30+    Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence
1997    30+    The Merck Manual

Influential Science Books 1940-1996 
[Not on Publishers Weekly best seller lists] 
George Gamow, Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland (1940) 
Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma (1944) 
Henry Smyth, Atomic Energy for Military Purposes (1945) 
James Conant, On Understanding Science (1947) 
B. F. Skinner, Walden Two (1948) 
Norbert Weiner, The Human Use of Human Beings (1950) 
Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision (1950) 
Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (1957) 
Rene Dubos, Mirage of Science (1959) 
Lewis Mumford, The City in History (1961) 
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962) 
Isaac Asimov (multiple titles beginning in 1960s) 
James Watson, The Double Helix (1968) 
Erich von Däniken, Chariots of the Gods? (1970) 
Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (1970) 
Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell (1974) 
E. O. Wilson, Sociobiology (1975) 
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976) 
Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reasoning (1976) 
Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin (1977) 
Benoit Mandelbrot, Fractals (1977) 
Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (1977) 
Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (1979) 
Lester Thurow, Zero Sum Society (1980) 
Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism (1983) 
Stephen Jay Gould, Wonderful Life (1989) 
Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: 
The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science
Nicholas Negroponte, Being Digital (1995) 
Carl Sagan, Demon-Haunted World (1996)

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