The recent review of Stephen Hawkins’ latest book by the Economist had in me tears of laughter. Not “rolling on the floor” type merriment but rather “looking in the sunset – feeling pleased with myself” type of laughter. “God played no part in the book, which was renowned for being bought by everyone and understood by few.” Couldn’t have said it better myself!
I need to clarify something. I read a lot of popular science books. Before they came along in such quality and frequency I had to resort to University first year text books to quickly understand a topic I am interested in. But precisely because I read a lot of them, I know very well what I am looking for. The problem with the Hawkins’ book is that “whenever the going threatens to get tough, the authors retreat into hand-waving, and move briskly on to the next awe-inspiring notion.”
Contrast this type of book with the works of Richard Dawkins, even much older ones and there is a lot to learn, useful for communicating even simple business messages:
1. Passion helps. Meandering aimlessly around the Universe really lacks the kind of story that Dawkins pulls together in “The Blind Watchmaker” or even “Climbing Mount Improbable”. If the story tellers has no sense of purpose, it is impossible to hide it though “facts”, “experiments” or “data”.
2. It is not about the particular subject matter. Genes are not inherently more interesting than photons or black holes. In fact I would argue that most of science is exactly the same once you get to the bottom of it, ie simultaneously practical and infinitely philosophical.
3. Inviting feedback is an art. The main thesis has to be broken down to a size for everyone to get involved. It is no coincidence that Richard Dawkins has caused such furore. He is not the first to remind us that we are descendants of monkeys. Yet he is No1 on many fanatics’ hit lists!
4. Open lines of communication. Dawkins’ books are fun to read even from the opening as he answers Gould or any other critic since the previous edition. He takes on tough assignments like standing in front of Christians explaining his ideas and he never backs down from a chance to defend his views. (Search for “Dawkins” + “debate” for an idea of how much he uses this tool.)
Granted, some topics are better than others. It is easy to get lost in numbers and theories while star gazing. The molecular biology paradigm is infinitely superior to physics because it is easier to relate to examples from the animal kingdom and the hard reality of the need for ecological thinking is dawning on the entire planet. “While perhaps offering great tanning opportunities, any solar system with multiple suns would probably never allow life to develop” (Hawkins’ book excerpt) is funny but surely lacks impact in a world pondering global warming and sunburn.
Dawkins spells this out beautifully in a book which I believe should be taught to everyone attending University. Unweaving the Rainbow takes aim at the question of science vs art and demolishes the barriers by following the rules I laid out above. It is a tear jerker for anyone that loves science. And while the poets won’t be far behind in line for their hankies, maybe they will all get a good discussion going.
And that is what I call great communication.
Just to be clear I am not in any way knocking Hawkins’ scientific achievements, just his written communication skills. I hope he gets that well deserved Oscar now that some ways of testing out his theories are springing up.