Shared Joy is Twice the Joy, Shared Pain is Half the Pain

Thanks Are in Order

As a student of the sciences, I think it is high time I thank the people who have saved me over and over again over the years. And no, I’m not talking about my parents. (Although they did provide me with a brain capable of comprehending…so thanks to you too, I guess.)

No, I’m talking about all those authors who write science books for non-scientists. This is a genre of books I’ve always loved. I loved the science for kids books and, as I grew up, I’ve loved books that explain something (anything, really!) to me. But this week, I need to express a particular appreciation for Richard Martin, author of Super Fuel.

Eventually, I’ll finish the book, and you’ll get a TBTW about it, I promise! But for now, I just need to say:

If you got past Science 101 in college, then you know that science textbooks go very quickly (read: instantaneously) from 1) a superficial overview of a number of topics that include gross generalizations and simplifications in order to expose the student to a broad swath of the subject to 2) a very specific consideration of a topic that assumes complex understanding of about a million classes you never took.

For example, in chemistry, quantum mechanics assumes you already understand all of kinematics, and kinematics assumes you get quantum mechanics (does anyone really get quantum mechanics?) Or in physics, where the advanced lab course requires the topics taught in optics, and optics requires the lab technique taught in the advanced lab course. Regardless of the science you’re studying, there will come a time when the textbook assumes intimate knowledge of topics you’ve never heard of (and the Wikipedia page is similarly bad) and you will want to cry because nothing you’re supposed to be learning makes sense.

Enter science for non-scientists. Specifically, books that have to do with topics you’re intimately interested in.

Because every so often, your Fundamentals of Nuclear Reactor Physics textbook’s pages upon pages of equations do an exemplary job at explaining something like nuclear flux without any actual words, so the wikipedia page (which is all words, and no equations) makes just as much sense. But then the kind science writer explains “in technical terms the ‘neutron flux’ – the density of neutrons zipping around” (pg 68) and all those equations instantly make sense. In just two pages, the entire chapter that made very little, if any, sense at all, suddenly makes sense now. Not because the author incredibly compacted 40 pages of equations into two pages of text, but because he provided the words and the analogies that made the complex ideas “click.”

So thanks, Mr. Martin. I look forward to the next 150 pages of your book.

(And yes, when I got fed up with my nuclear physics, I went running to nuclear physics to escape. Don’t judge.)


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