The Project – 1

It is midnight and I really should get to sleep in order to wake up and work some more on editing the final exam for my class so that it can go to the printer by noon. But I’ve got several pokes from people clamouring to find out what The Project actually is, and I promised yesterday I’d start to spill the beans. Thanks for the interest! I think I’d better get at least some of it out there or I’ll have an angry mob by morning! So here goes. I will drag out the draft I sketched yesterday and beat it into shape:

So, as you may have guessed, The Project, which I’ve been mentioning here since a post way back in February, is a writing project, but it is somewhat different from what you might expect. The bottom line is that I hope that at some point into future you will be able to purchase a copy of your own, and that you will find it instructive, exciting, and enjoyable. At least.

Yes, it is a book about science. However… Well, here’s the thing. Over many years, people (friends, colleagues, potential agents and publishers, blog readers, etc) have been asking me when I am going to write my book. You know, the popular-level book that every academic who is interested in the public understanding of their field (as you know I am from reading this blog) is expected will write at some point. To be honest, I have given it some thought over the years, and it has been something I figured I might do at some point. In fact, several different ideas have occurred to me over the years, and I may well implement some of them at some point.

But a major thought began to enter my mind well over ten years ago. In my field, there is a rather narrow range of models for the shape of such books, usually involving about 80% of it being a series of chapters covering all the standard introductory material (some relativity, some quantum mechanics, and so forth) for the lay reader, before culminating in a chapter or two of what the researcher really wants to tell them about: some aspect of their research. This is a fine model, and it is great that people continue to write such books, and I will no doubt use that model one day, but to be honest, I don’t think there is any urgency for me to add to the canon yet another one of those books. Moreover, if you line examples of that type of book up against each other, you see that the aforementioned 80% is pretty much common to all of them. It’s the same stuff, often the same old analogies, written for the same audience who already are predisposed to seek out such books and read them. This is fine, and I am glad this market exists and that there are people who seek out and consume these books (thank you!), but again, as you know from my various sorts of work in the area of bringing science to the general public, I’ve an intense interest in not just “preaching to the converted”. This is why I often contribute to TV shows, magazines, and other venues and outlets that some might find odd or questionable. If we stay “safe” all the time, as we academics seem to do so much, we don’t reach new people and we merely scratch the science-illiteracy problem we all nobly sit around whining about. I don’t want science Balkanized, and the people who want to read about it and learn it classified as another Special Interest Group. I want to reach out and bring in new people, in new ways. I want to bring in people who don’t even think of themselves as being “into science”. They’re just interested in broadening their cultural knowledge, and science is part of our culture, just like art, music, theatre, and so forth. Once those from that broader range of people have been brought in, they can if they wish then enjoy reading all those books I mentioned above that are written following the sort of Standard Model that books in my field follow.

So in writing my Academic’s “outreach book”, and least in the first instance, this is where I think I want to focus my effort: Stepping aside from the usual model of what is done, and instead trying to help to broaden the toolbox of methods we can use to put science out there. (There are several really excellent books by active researchers that follow the Standard Model, I say again, and also there are several great ones that break the mould. And I am not talking at all about the ever-widening and strengthening list of marvellous books on the subject by full-time science writers. That’s another discussion altogether.)

So anyway I hesitated, way back in the late 90s. Having said all the above, or rather thought all of it, I wanted to think it through carefully, and various ideas took shape. About ten years ago I hit on more or less the narrative form I wanted to use. I would revisit one of the oldest forms of telling the reader about science that has been employed, a form that seems to have been forgotten in recent times, at least for my field. It goes back to giants such as Galileo, who communicated many of the things we know him for in this form in what were books intended for mass circulation (by the standards for the time). I’m talking about dialogues.

Rather than being lectured by the author directly, in the sort of top-down approach that is common, the reader finds that they are instead an eavesdropper on conversations between people. They are talking about science – about how the world works. The book will be a series of short conversations between people, largely. In it, the reader picks up a bit of science, on a variety of topics. Think of it as going a tiny bit toward the literary and a lot toward the fictional, in order to find narratives that deliver fact – science, and the doing of science.

That’s going to be fun already, but there’s more. Much more. For a start, I also want to get away from that standard thing of the whole book being a top-down, the-expert-says sort of enterprise. Yes, there will be scientist characters in the book, and they will weigh in, where appropriate, with their view point on a subject, but there will be non-scientists too. The point is that non-experts can and do talk about science too, and their conversations can be just as interesting. I hear these conversations a lot out there in the world, in cafes, restaurants, dentist’s waiting rooms and on buses, to name a few places. Why not give such people a voice too? Right along side the scientists. The readers know such non-expert – but nonetheless interested – people really well. They are those people. So there will be a variety of characters in the book that the reader can follow. Furthermore, they will be having conversations out the in the real world, not on some mountain top, or ivory tower. The locations of the conversations will be familiar to all in the broad, and sometimes in the narrow, and so you might recognize a favorite city, or even a favourite cafe. (Perhaps some of my travelling now makes sense to you. Some of it was also location scouting, but see later.)

But no, that’s still not all. The idea, over ten years taking shape in my mind, took a leap from the above to add another major component. I was keen to show a little of the language we use when doing science, as I sometimes show you here on the blog. Equations, diagrams, and so forth. Even if the reader does not get all of it, they’d get a sense of the tools we use. This is important to me as I think we hide a lot of what we use in our work, and then try to put it all purely into words when we write books. Then we wonder why people don’t quite “get” what we do, or how we think. We hide it! Odd, really. I was also keen to show who all these people involved in the dialogues are – they are everybody! From all sorts of walks of life, shapes, sizes, colours, creeds,and so forth.

Again and again over the years, I stepped away from the book ideas, and focused on other things, like research, and changing jobs, unexpected and unlooked-for changes of circumstance here and there, and of course other forms of outreach, in writing, TV, radio, film, theatre, and so forth – so much of which you’ve learned about here. I stepped back to the book thoughts from time to time, moving the shape of them forward each time. (In fact, I’ve several book ideas now, growing out from this core tree of ideas. I’ll explore them in time, perhaps.)

This process continued until, one day some years aback (four or five, perhaps, although sometimes I think it may have been seven or eight – just after D-Branes was done), it just snapped into my head what it is I should be doing – just how I should combine all the elements above into the powerful narrative device I was reaching for. It is something that had been staring me in the face for a long time. A genre with which I have a lot of familiarity. Just perfect for what I want. What is it I should do?

A graphic novel.

Of course!

To Be Continued…

Next: More on the Why. Lots on the How! A little on the “Really?!”


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12 Responses to The Project – 1

  1. Chris M. says:

    Sounds awesome!!! I love the idea!

  2. Kevin O says:

    I think the important question is will we be able to get signed copies! 😀

  3. candace says:

    Well well well…that is all too interesting! If I had known, I would have asked Woodrow Phoenix to join us at our last meeting of the minds. He’s a wicked cool and talented chap, check out his Rumble Strips for inspiration.

    I assume you have seen the Introducing… series? A la Introducing Quantum Theory? They are sort of graphics based, and I quite liked them in my days before actually studying physics.

    And finally, Logicomix. Loved it.

    I very much look forward to seeing what you come up with!

  4. Carol&Co says:

    Can’t wait to get it in my hands and yes please for a signed copy! cmj+

  5. Plato says:

    Wonderful thought process Clifford as to the developmental stage.

    At least this is not done under some political idealization and fear of persecution that Francis Bacon may have had to contend with while he constructing the plays of Shakespeare( that’s speculation of course), as you might think of the “constructive phase of your book” under the idea of a dialogue.

    If I look back, it is hard from me to believe that so may characters could have been created in mind, to think of the accurate portrayal of the process with which I might have wanted to be portrayed in principle. Is this what I think you might be after in the portrayal of those characters, as you bring across that science specific simplistic leading in relation to everyday exchanges?


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  7. Wow!

    (May have something more articulate to contribute later on, but just…wow! Cool!)


  8. Mary Cole says:

    IP – you have articulated what I wanted to say! Exactly my first reaction!

  9. Clifford says:

    Thanks everyone!

    Much more to come… stay tuned…


  10. The dialogue form is very entertaining, I liked that about “Goedel Escher Bach” for example.

    I use this method sometimes on my blog, when Sascha talks with Straw-man and Sock-puppet somewhat like Galileo used Salviati, Sagredo and Simplicio.

    Good luck – really hope you do succeed in not writing yet another boring book on again the same with a little woo in the end.


  11. Blake Stacey says:

    My thoughts have also run along these lines:

    I was keen to show a little of the language we use when doing science, as I sometimes show you here on the blog. Equations, diagrams, and so forth. Even if the reader does not get all of it, they’d get a sense of the tools we use. This is important to me as I think we hide a lot of what we use in our work, and then try to put it all purely into words when we write books. Then we wonder why people don’t quite “get” what we do, or how we think.

    I’m glad to see someone doing something about it!

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