India needs a critical mass of public science books

The science revolution: Propelling India into a new era of knowledge and discovery


Popular science books anchor scientific understanding among the public. They help the public understand the complexity of the seemingly simple, like why the ocean looks blue, and simplify the complex, like the working of our brain. As well as providing scientific knowledge, they introduce the larger public to the scientific process of questioning, of differentiating fact from fiction, as a means to continuously enhance the collective knowledge of the human race.

From 'On The Origin of Species' (1859) written by Darwin, to 'An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us' (2022) by journalist Ed Yong, popular science books have not only explained the complex workings of science but at times, completely changed the society's understanding of the universe. Public science books also illuminate topics that affect our daily lives. Pulitzer Prize winner Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee weaves together scientific insights, medical anecdotes, and personal stories to create an emotionally compelling narrative. Science books have the potential to capture the imagination of the public and sell big - Stephen Hawking's  'The Brief History of Time' has sold more than 9 million copies globally.

In contemporary India, there seems to be a nascent underdeveloped interest in popular science writing. The appetite for popular science books could also be much larger. Of the top 100 bestselling books in India (2023) at Amazon, only one is a science-related popular book. This forms a vicious circle in which lack of demand and supply of popular scientific books reinforce each other.

We believe that a critical mass of popular science books in India will have a multiplicative effect and transform society through three mechanisms:

Disseminating Scientific knowledge

We live in a challenging world of climate change, bugs, air pollution, mis/dis-information, and much more besides. India is on the path of becoming a mid-income economy with an increasingly vibrant entrepreneurial citizenry and multiple new enterprises. We have to equip the new Indian citizen with the latest scientific knowledge, and familiarity with the scientific process and systems of thinking. Armed with a scientific worldview, not only can they live well in the new world, but also make the lives of other citizens better.

Consider Sinan's book on social media, fake news, and misinformation. Like many other science books, a paperback at Indian prices is not available. If such a book were available it would likely reach much larger audiences within India. It could even inspire and guide Indian changemakers to create organisations and tools to fight misinformation at various levels. Similarly, there are a number of international books on climate change, or on generative AI, but we need them with an Indian flavour and price. And a public science book on relativity, with Indian analogies, examples and idioms will be terrific!

Introducing the Scientist

Career aspiration surveys show the career of a scientist is, perhaps surprisingly, not valued very highly.  Only a quarter of top Indian undergraduates report having met a scientist or having read a scientific paper. 1We want the Indian youth to 'know' the scientists, in the same way they know entrepreneurs, business folks, and sports stars. Science books can work this magic, by introducing the scientist to the larger society, the exciting stuff they do, and how they contribute to the progress of the human race. Examples are plenty. Paul De Kruif's Microbe Hunters is referred to as the inspiration for many senior biologists to enter the field and Cosmos, by Carl Sagan, is seen as a 'recruitment book'.

A greater prominence of popular science books will not only encourage more of our youth to consider a scientific career but also help social scientists, artists, business folks, and civil society leaders get involved in conversations about science. This will help science grow and have positive spillovers on society. Eventually, as popular science books become increasingly read in India, they will inspire many more science authors, turning a vicious circle into a virtuous one.

Tell Indian science stories

India has many science stories to tell to the world. The more popular ones are the landing of Chandrayaan on the moon, the creation of a covid vaccine, and the discovery of zero in ancient India. We need popular science books telling more science stories from India - stories that currently remain hidden in research labs and journals. These could be about new scientific results, unique scientific questions that arise in India, and how great scientific institutions and scientists flourished.

A small but significant step was recently made through the India Science Book Fellowship, framed and judged by the authors of this article. The book ideas of the first set of selected fellows have blown our minds: one of them wants to explain quantum physics through the metaphor of cricket, another wants to tell tales of quirky science from India, and a third looks at food from a data science angle! These are the books India needs today.

We need to create a critical mass of popular science books in India. It will be a win-win for Indian science, Indian society, and the world. 

By: Varun Aggarwal, co-founder of FAST, India, and founder of Change Engine and Anil Seth, Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex, and the author of the best-selling book Being You - A New Science of Consciousness.

Varun Aggarwal, 2018, Leading Science and Technology: India Next?, SAGE Publications

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