Nontechnical Books for Adults
1993, roughly 45,000 new books were published in the U.S. [Publishers
Weekly, Mar. 7, 1994, data from R.R. Bowker Co.] Of these, about
2,000 were classified as science, although I suspect that the librarians
who do this classifying may well include some pseudoscience in this
category. Such books, written by both scientists and science journalists,
can be an important way that educated laypeople learn about new
developments and ideas in science.
a really excellent book comes along, such as Lonely Hearts of the
Cosmos or First Light, it can give laypeople marvelous insight into
how astronomy is really done today. A best seller, such as Cosmos
or The Brief History of Time (which by the end of 1993 had sold
over 5.5 million copies worldwide), can turn many people on to astronomy,
although such initial enthusiasm generally needs more to sustain
it than a single book can provide.
this front, there is good news and bad news: the good news is that
fine books in popular astronomy are still finding a publisher; the
bad news is that these publishers rarely promote or advertise such
books with any energy or enthusiasm. Instead, they reserve their
advertising budgets for the books they consider "guaranteed big
sellers", a phrase which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As a result, some of the best astronomy books of the last decade
have sunk without a trace in the vast murky ocean of modern publishing.
The recent trend of mergers among publishers and book stores, and
the resulting reduction in the variety of books being effectively
marketed, will only serve to make this situation worse, I suspect.
area of astronomy education that has received very little attention
are children's books, despite the fact that these can have a strong
influence on youngsters. Several astronomers and science writers
have produced whole series of astronomy books for kids, among them
the late biochemist Isaac Asimov, the former director of the Hayden
Planetarium Franklyn Branley, British astrophysicist David Darling,
the current director of the Griffith Observatory Ed Krupp, the associate
director of the Pacific Science Center Dennis Schatz, journalist
Seymour Simon, and NASA aerospace specialist Gregory Vogt. Alas,
mixed in with these excellent and reliable books often on
specific single topics in astronomy are a host of muddle-headed,
error-filled books written by people with little science background
and published by organizations and publishers who should (in many
cases) know better.
the ASP, we have collected and reviewed hundreds of children's books
on astronomy and have published recommendations for the best of
them in The Universe at Your Fingertips Resource Notebook. But it
would be nice if there were more of a concerted effort to review
and recognize children's books that do a good job in teaching astronomy.
The World Wide Web
truly is a realm where the good, the bad, and the ugly coexist;
no medium is as democratic and thus as "un-refereed" as the web.
Some excellent sites for astronomy education coexist with the most
pernicious and misleading nonsense. I might point to the fact that
in fall 1996, a single mistaken observation by a vociferous observer
with no serious background in astronomy, claiming that Comet Hale-Bopp
was being followed by a giant object, was then spread via the Web,
the Internet, and late night talk radio shows to all corners of
the world (and may have played a significant role in the Heaven's
Gate suicides). Many of us have probably had to deal with questions
from this bizarre incident, and it illustrates that at a time when
conspiracy theories are high on the list of public entertainment
and paranoia, the unfettered medium of the Web brings dangers as
well as opportunities.
are voices among astronomers and astronomy educators that see the
Web as the best solution to the problems I have outlined above,
and look forward to the day when all American schools will have
Web access. And there is no question that the Web has enormous potential
in disseminating images and information to a wide range of end users.
Many of us, however, have a number of doubts about Web based solutions
of all, one must take with a cosmic grain of salt the statistics
being bandied about indicating how many schools are connected to
the Web. More careful surveys (and discussions with teachers) reveal
that the fact that the school may have one computer (in the principal's
office, say) with a modem and Web connection does not guarantee
that the average teacher or student will have access, time, training,
and encouragement to use it. In fact, the teachers who make best
use of the Web often wind up doing so from their home computers
and on their own time.
while there are now some superb sites which encourage and facilitate
age-appropriate, hands-on, inquiry-based activities in astronomy,
many other sites are designed either with an astronomy graduate
student or advanced physics teacher in mind (making very little
sense to the average browser) or are put together by an enthusiast
with minimal science background and often filled with misunderstandings.
Surfing the Web may be a delightful way to spend an afternoon (much
like video games, and sometimes with the same hypnotic effect),
but there is no guarantee that educational outcomes will follow
unless the surfer has careful guidance.
be sure, the Web has only been around a short time, and as new tools,
new modes of access, and new public attitudes develop around it,
its efficacy and outreach capabilities may yet make it one of the
most important areas of informal science education. But it might
be useful to bear in mind that similar claims (that it would transform
education and save the world) were made for television in its early
days, and those promises have now given way to serious concerns
about the mindlessness of much of television programming.