Elizabeth Leane, Reading Popular Physics

Elizabeth Leane, Reading Popular Physics: Disciplinary Skirmishes and Textual Strategies (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 208 pp. £55 hb. ISBN 978-0-7546-5850-4.

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A critical consideration of the literary, scientific, and cultural contexts in which popular physics writing intervenes, Elizabeth Leane’s Reading Popular Physics: Disciplinary Skirmishes and Textual Strategies establishes surveyors’ stakes for literary criticism in the under-charted terrain of popular science writing. As Leane’s strongest contention is that greater analysis of popular science writing will prove a fruitful field, particularly for those engaged in science and literary studies, her book necessarily devotes substantial discussion of the context of popular science writing and the possibilities for further scholarship in the area.

The first half of Reading Popular Physics establishes the longevity of science popularizations and examines the genre’s boom in the last decades of the twentieth century, analyzing the relationship between this boom and the concurrent manifestations of the “two cultures” divide, especially the “Science Wars.” The opening chapter looks carefully at the long history of popular science writing, putting the lie to the ideas that such works are a new phenomenon of the late-twentieth century or were originally a response to the counterintuitive claims of relativity and quantum physics. Leane provides both historical background and interpretive context for the upsurge in which she is chiefly interested: substantial sales of popular physics books in the 1980s and 1990s. Chapter two analyzes this boom and its effects on the two cultures, especially how the boom contributed to ongoing and resurgent conflicts; Leane suggests that some of the vitriol emerges from literary scholars’ failure to attend to the bookishness of popular science books. Here and throughout, Leane is careful to articulate the limits of her attention, and these boundaries offer clear possibilities for other scholars to build on the ground Leane breaks in this volume. The claims made from science studies about the knowledge work of scientists, and the hostility some of these have provoked in scientists (especially scientists who also write popular science) are a major focus of the third chapter. Addressing the science wars, especially in terms of the Sokal hoax and various attacks on social studies of science, in this chapter Leane establishes that popular science writing generally should be understood to play a larger role in the discussion than has previously been attributed to it.

Having grounded these broad contexts in extensive research, Leane turns to case studies in the second half of Reading Popular Physics: three chapters, each of which moves toward a close reading of one or two popular physics books, focusing first on anthropomorphic metaphor in quantum theory popularizations, then on mythic narrative in cosmology popularizations, and finally on characterization in chaos theory popularizations. These three chapters follow similar structures. Each opens with lengthy discussion of the specific context into which Leane sees the exemplar text(s) intervening. Further, each offers careful definitions of the textual strategies under discussion. For readers entering into studies of popular science writing, Leane’s continuing development of the cultural contexts into which such writing intervenes will be welcome. And scholars from outside literary studies may likewise appreciate Leane’s careful tracings of the changeable definitions of such literary objects as metaphor, myth, and characterization. Unfortunately, having so carefully prepared the ground for the analyses with which she concludes each chapter, these readings feel at times perfunctory in their relative brevity. In the readings themselves, the clarity of Leane’s prose falls off, though it never becomes impenetrable. Analyses of the five chief texts appear as touchstones and placeholders, giving the impression at times that Leane has run out of steam.

Nonetheless, one of the more interesting moves in Leane’s discussion of Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters is her critique of its use as a source for scientific fact. Showing that Zukav’s text is an outlier in its presentation of quantum physics, Leane notes the manner in which literary critics’ naïve acceptance of this nontechnical popularization has undermined the admissibility of their metaphorical comparisons between science and literature. Conversely, Leane’s treatment of cosmology popularizations shows how two of the best known of these—Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Steven Weinberg’s The First Three Minutes—make use of the very mythic strategies they displace. The closing chapter addresses chaos, including a careful explanation for Leane’s treatment of chaos under the rubric of physics. In James Gleick’s Chaos and M. Mitchell Waldrop’s Complexity Leane finds an intriguing use of characterization, as these popularizations enact emergent order through the narrative of happenstance personal interactions between disorganized, absentminded scientists.

This slim volume is self-admittedly a call for further literary analysis of popular science writing, and it is this effort that has been pursued most fully, as Reading Popular Physics offers a usefully detailed introduction to and analysis of the field against which literary-critical analyses of popular science writing could proceed. The writing is clearest and the thinking best developed in reporting the relevant histories of popular science writing, the shaping of science studies as a discipline, and the later-twentieth-century developments after C. P. Snow’s two cultures model. Although the carefully attentive situating of the broader context and significance of studies of the textual strategies used in popular physics writing (or popular science writing more generally) proceeds with a citational reliance typical of first books, in the case of Leane’s effort this is all to the good. Her contextualization provides clear demarcations for the book’s objectives while also suggesting a wealth of future research to be undertaken.

Jenni Halpin, Savannah State University