Monthly Archives: March 2011

Gawping at Milan Central Station

I visited Milan Central Station recently, and there is only one word for it: awesome (see my ‘a brief history of awesome‘ post if you think I use that word loosely). But more than that, it was designed to be awesome.

scary ceiling

I arrived there from Zurich. The train had wound through the Swiss mountains; providing me plenty of opportunity to play compare-and-contrast with traditional ideas of the natural sublime and those of the built environment. This was two weeks ago, and I was haunted by news from Japan too, in particular a radio interview with Japanese ambassador to the UK, Keiichi Hayashi, saying his nation had been ‘humbled and awed’ by the power of nature. I was also thinking about the many people keen to point out how incredible the stories of engineering coming out from Japan were too. As a friend posted on his facebook wall:

the Fukishima plant is four decades old. It’s just been hit by an earthquake ten times the size of the one that hit new zealand… then a massive tsunaumi… and now a series of hydrogen explosions. And the reactor cores are still intact. I’m wowed.

A sense of the power of technology to control nature, or of science to understand it, is different from an idea of the power of nature itself. Technological and scientific sublimes reflect connections (or disconnections) to people. Although we may feel in awe and at so at some distance from those great people who have done such amazing feats of genius, they are still people, so we may also feel some sense of connection and control too (entirely depending on context).

But onto the awesomeness of Milan Central Station. The first thing I noticed was the large expansive arch of the platforms. I don’t know if it’s the shape, or the size, or the promise of adventures on the trains going in and out, but it’s hard not to be moved by such spaces. York’s got a grand one too, and I’m a big fan of Paddington’s.


But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Walk off the platform, and you enter a huge hall. And another. And another. Milan Station is huge. I mean really, really huge. It’s hard not to sound stoned here, but it’s like, really, REALLY huge. It probably doesn’t take up that much more space than Edinburgh Waverly or the Gare de Lyon, it might even be smaller, but it is high and spacious is a way that clearly aims to accentuate size. It’s built to make you go wow in the same way you might gawp at the size of a mountain.

It reminded me of a church I once saw across in Manhattan. From a distance, it looked like any church you might find in the UK, but as I got closer I realized it was built on a completely different scale; each brick was at least 10% bigger. The station also reminded me of iconic religious buildings like the Hagia Sophia, the Neasden Temple or St Paul’s cathedral, especially the way the light comes in from the ceiling to flood the various large halls.


The building it most reminded me of, however, was London’s Natural History Museum.  Just as the NHM is often dubbed a cathedral to nature, Milan station is in many ways a cathedral to technology. You might not be able to see, but in those circles just above the columns and gargoyles in the photo are representations of a car, and a train and a ship (slightly closer shot, but hard to capture in a photo). Also, look, it’s Roberto Fvlton and Georgio Stephenson, and what about this:

ladies, ladies
I should add that the building also reminded me of the Soviet monuments in the Szoborpark just outside of Budapest. These, although relatively small, are positioned at clever angles so you cannot help but feel slightly threatened. Milan Station, like statues, museums, churches and a host of municipal buildings all over the world, is designed to make the visitor feel small in comparison. This is awe to make you feel humbled, and as a form of the technological sublime, to feel humble with respect to other people.

ticket office

I’m ambivalent about this. On the one side you might see such a feeling of being humble compared to others as a celebration of the skill of people. But on the other side is a sense that you are not as good as those other people. If the sublime in science writing comes from a transference of the power of God to Nature, I’m not sure about transferring this power to people. Or at least I’m not sure about it if such majesty is unequally distributed. Or at least I think we need to be aware that we are ascribing such power and consider whether it’s appropriate or not, and whether (and how) it might be changed/ transferred/ redistributed.

Basically this is just all a long way of pointing out that breathlessly going ‘OMG isn’t it a-maz-ing…?’ isn’t the end of a political conversation, it’s the start. But I think that’s important.

March 26

Yesterday, along with many hundreds of thousands of others, I attended the anti-cuts march in London. I think it’s important to record individual experiences of these sorts of events, even if these experiences aren’t dramatic enough to make the national news. Indeed, it’s important to record them precisely because they aren’t dramatic. So here, largely for the sake of boredom, is mine.

Feet, marching

I was meeting my mother for coffee in Trafalgar Square in the morning. Walking up from South of the River, I found myself turned around my the police when I tried to cross Hungerford Bridge. There were already hundreds and hundreds of people congregating on the Embankment, and it was only a bit after 10am. We joined the demo on Whitehall around midday, and found ourselves near the front. We pottered along up Piccadilly onto Hyde Park.

IoE banner

It was all very British, with people apologising, drinking flasks of tea and talking about the weather. There were the traditional union banners and brass bands, but also steel pans and bagpipes, as well as homemade placards (a fair few referencing Father Ted…) and ones in Welsh and Arabic as well as English. The Bollywood Brass Band was especially good.

Bollywood Brass band

We ended up at the stage in Hyde Park really early, and nothing much was happening so went off to get some lunch. On the way back we walked along a bit of the West end of Oxford St. There were loads of police guarding individual shops, but all they seemed to have to deal with were crowds of tourists taking photos of them. According to twitter, the protesters where nearer Oxford Circus. We listened to some of the speeches, and Mum headed home.

I started walking back in the opposite direction of the march to get sense of its sheer size and diversity. I bumped into a friend, which was nice, and caught up with some others online. I laughed at some placards and giggled at chants. Mum texted to say her train was full of happy marchers saying maybe the government would listen (she sounded rather cynical of this, but seemed to be enjoying the feeling). Near Green Park, I spotted this bit of graffiti (the blue plague notes Lord Palmerston used to live here…). I was slightly surprised to see this, it stuck out amongst a very well behaved protest.

Tories OUT

I moved to back streets for a bit to get out of the way of the protesters, and now the tone really changed. There were lots of sirens. I heard people muttering about smashed windows and scurrying in and out of buildings. A crowd of young people ran by, all in black with their faces covered with scarves. They were chased by a group of what I guessed were journalists wearing bicycle helmets (indeed, I saw one on the BBC later that evening). A minute later, a crowd of hi-viz clad police followed. It was like something out of a movie.

I got back to Piccadilly and the main march, and the friendly feeling of peaceful protest returned. There were a few smashed windows, but they seemed like relics of a moment of madness now passed. It wasn’t like the fees demos last year. People were angry, that was why they were there, but they were also delighting in how many other people can come out to protest with them. There was a joyous sense of solidarity; a sense of shared anger, that we were all in this together.

This banner isn't big enough...

I walked back to Trafalgar Square and even though it was nearly 4pm, more and more people were still joining the march. Clearly from all parts of the UK, and many different fields. They were smiling and dancing. Despite the darker moments round the edges, this is how I’ll remember the march: a big, social smile and a giant, mass dance. At its most positive, it felt like a cultural event as much as a political one (and I think there lies much of its potential power).

Medical workers dancing

What hope for science journalism?

On Wednesday, I attended the London Public Understanding of Science seminar at the LSE. The speaker was Andy Williams of Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, presenting work from the ‘Mapping the Field‘ research project about science news journalism in the UK.

It’s interesting stuff. Do have a look if you haven’t already. It’s also paints a rather dismal picture of current and future science journalism. Williams interviewed UK science journalists and got back a story of increased demands for content, less staff, a steady stream of churn-able PR, pressure, bad management from newsdesks and simply not the time, space and resources to explore and prod science news stories with the degree of critical reflection we might hope for.

As many people at the seminar pointed out, we seemed to be presented with an image of a golden age of science journalism, and this is somewhat of a myth. The story was also one which blamed PR. Again, people at the seminar stressed that the role of a science press officer isn’t exactly one of Malcolm Tucker, and that there is a long history of a close relationship (even overlap of roles) between science writers and science PRs; just read Dorothy Nelkin

A story of too much PR is, one might argue, part of a mythologising of journalism by journalists, as is a story of nasty newsdesks and crappy subs. As analysts we need a critical approach to this. Although I’d argue that science journalists too often get an unfairly bad press, and it is right to acknowledge the constraints they work under, I also think media researchers should be able to take a larger view than simply beat/defend the journo. One empirically grounded way to do this might have been to extend the study to include a larger range of media actors; to get PR’s, bloggers, editors, scientists, etc to give some perspective on the journalists as well as the journalists self-testimony.

(It occurred to me that reference to ‘bad press’ above was a bad metaphor, but I don’t think it is necessarily, and the very fact I can use this term about them shows science journalists do not, alone, produce public science commentary).

Something that wasn’t mentioned at the seminar, but thinking back on it probably should have been, was the role of scientists mediating themselves. I wonder if the people at the seminar would have filed such work under PR. It doesn’t fit the Fourth Estate vision of press Williams largely applied. Still, I think there is a huge role for this, working in dialogue with their various audiences, and alongside independent journalists and other communicators. There are other issues with this though, not least providing decent support systems to allow scientists to do such work.

I also wondered if Williams was working from a slightly limited notion of science writer. He kept out freelancers and/or bloggers. The hopeful voices I know in science journalism are the young freelancers, many of whom blog. Or at least they are hopeful about quality, they are shitting themselves about a regular wage.

Williams made the point that is wasn’t nearly as bad as in the USA, and I heard worse from American academics at the Science Online conference in January. John Rennie suggested that we might have to deal with the idea that science journalism was like poetry: people would do it for the love of it, and earn a living from teaching or winning the odd prize. My response at the time was that there’s a lot of bad poetry, and I’m not sure how I feel about more ‘bad science’ (and that I didn’t like the idea that science writing might end up the preserve of those rich enough to do it). Still, he had a point. More productively, I also said that the very thing some people blame for the destruction of golden age science journalism – online communication – can help open up science writing, and in particular help open up support networks so science writers could help each other get work. Ed Yong’s set up a sort of virtual ‘tip jar’ (and owes me a few quid apparently). I made him a scarf in a similar gesture. It was amazing to watch the reaction to Ed Yong and Brian Switek announcing they were going freelance this week; so many people were quick to wish them luck and offer advice.

Ok, a few friendly words, a few quid and a scarf won’t pay the rent, but perhaps it’s a start? Maybe I’m kidding myself though, what do people think? Is there more hope in science journalism, if we just looked somewhere other than the spaces Williams’ research project had?

The google-ifcation of the science fair

I’m one of the judges for Google’s Global Science Fair, something I’m rather excited about.

I’ve always been a bit jealous of American kids and their culture of science fairs. As I put in a post for the Guardian’s science blog last week, there has been a fair bit of talk over the death of the science fair in the US recently, but Google’s entry into the scene promises to bring a degree of geeky glamour. Big and spectacular, this is a souped-up science fair for an online world of interconnected knowledge creation and interconnected knowledge sharing (though we might also raise a sceptical eyebrow at the project too).

For me, the most important part of the google-ification of the science fair is the knowledge-sharing; that you enter by building a website and so open it up for others to see. Science fairs have always been about communicating your project as well as doing it (indeed, we might argue this is true of science in general). In many ways, they exist as events where people can get together to share science. They are focused on the work of young people, but no child is an island, and science fairs involve family, friends, teachers and other community members too. They are social events.

Science teacher Alom Shaha wrote recently, secondary school students routinely produce original works of art, music, poems, stories and plays, why not ask them to make some science too? We should be wary of loose comparisons between subjects, but in many respects Shaha makes a key point. Not only do we ask children to make art, music and writing, we get them to share such work in concerts and displays. Through this we share an understanding and experience of such culture across generations. We should share, applaud, critique (grumble about … ) and collaboratively enjoy cultures of science too.

The international scope of the Google fair means we can’t all pour into one town hall, but I hope that the same technology that allows this event to happen will also encourage people to share its entries as widely as possible. So, keep your eyes on Google’s Science Fair blog, and I promise to post from the finals at Google HQ in July.

In the meantime, in the spirit of sharing kids’ experiences of and with science, I can seriously recommend the I’m A Scientist twitter account at the moment (or just keep a look on the latest questions bit on their website).

A brief history of awesome


Some might argue such a preponderance of superlatives has something to with the hyper-mediated nature of postmodernity. Others might more breezily blame the internet. Whatever the reason, there seems to be an awful lot of awesome around.

Indeed, science writer and film-maker John Pavlus recently argued that a sense of awe was the first principle of engagement with science. Pavlus has a point, and in many respects I liked his post. Still, I think there is a politics embedded in popular science’s use of the awesome, and it’s worth being aware of this. So here’s a brief trip through some of the history, ideas and history-of-ideas wrapped up in popular science’s long-standing obsession with this sum-of-awe.

I’ll start with a bit of etymology, and here I think it’s worth acknowledging the overlaps between awesome and other words associated with a sense of wonderment.  In unpicking the history of a sense of ‘curiosity’, Neil Kenny (1998) argues that it shares much with other similar terms enacted to reflect a desire for knowledge: interest, wonder, marvel, strangeness, subtlety, secret and rarity being the few he flags up. He also emphasises that all these terms have an especially notable plurality of meaning (see also Marr, 2006: 2-3) These are flexibily applied words, and the boundaries of what curiosity was supposed to be applied to or might mean was, throughout the Early Modern period, ‘in a constant process of being not only inscribed but also dissolved’. Indeed, the notion of being curious and useful might be, at once, linked to each other and dissociated within a single page (Kenny, 1998: 109). Similarly, ‘interesting’ achieved prominence in the latter half of the seventeenth century, gradually displacing curiosity as the Enlightenment got underway (Kenny, 1998: 143). The history of ‘interesting’ is equally complex, with multiple, occasionally contradictory, meanings, and Kenny argues that such semantic twists arose largely because the terms reflected aspiration and self-interest (Kenny, 1998: 144). They were political terms, reflecting and ascribing a politics to the objects defined as ‘wondrous’. Indeed, one of the most extraordinary characteristics of ‘curiosity’ was its transformation, in the early modern period, into a morally good or neutral quality, but suggests that even this had some flexibility, with theological communities tending to conceive of it as a pejorative term (Kenny, 1998: 14-15). Curiosity killed the cat, after all. Or Faust maybe (c.f. Haynes, 1994).

Such references to theological communities let’s get onto ideas of the sublime, which is when the history of the awesome really kicks in as a sense of awe is so key. In many respects, a history of awe is tied up with religion. As Marjorie Hope Nicolson (1959) argues, the first writers on the sublime were 17th century explorers who sought a vocabulary to express the new experiences and vistas they discovered. Trained in the classics and the Bible, these were, understandably, the discourses they applied. As Hope puts it, they ‘read into mountains emotions once reserved for God’ (Nicolson, 1959: 271, 224).  This isn’t to suggest popular science which invokes wonder is necessarily doing so in glory of God – I’m not playing a lazy game of spot-the-religious-discourse – only that the history of the language used to express wonder at aspects of the natural world, including studying this (including formalised study, such as science) shares something with the history of language used to refer to God. As I mentioned in a recent post about Victorian children’s books, reading about science was seen a form of devotional activity; it is possible to connect the two. Still, Kenny’s point about the multiple uses of curiosity suggests, such a shared history can lead to spats as much as anything else. As Simon Locke’s (2005) study of ‘enchantment’ around images of science in superhero comics emphasises, this may all seem contradictory, but it is a normal everyday part of the multiple meanings and feelings towards science which we all carry around.

There are, of course, differences between Early Modern forms of wonder and curiosity, and those we see today. Yet, as Mosco (2004) has emphasised in the context of allusions to the sublime in contemporary digital culture, some very old attitudes to knowledge and nature echo through contemporary culture within science and technology’s appeals to wonderment. In contrast, George Rousseau (2006) argues that, aside from the occasional ‘bland attribute ascribed to Newton-style geniuses’, the vogue for curiosity in science ended with the Victorians (Rousseau, 2006: 254). By arguing for the prevalence of discourses of curious wonderment in contemporary popular science, I do not necessarily argue against Rousseau. Rather, I suggest that it is not just historians who retrieve a sense of curiosity from the past; a range of people commenting on science today apply a sense of ‘good old fashioned wonder’ nostalgically (e.g. The Dangerous Book for Boys). Perhaps because we feel a sense of awe so deeply it gets folded into ideas of authenticity. Moreover, Jon Turney, in discussing allusions to the sublime in contemporary popular science, suggests that if anything those qualities noted by the first writers on the sublime have only been amplified by the various tools of contemporary science: ‘The universe has become larger, older, and more violent’ (Turney, 2004: 94).

This point about being large, old and more violent is key, and brings me back to the meanings of the sublime and, in particular, the politics of awesome.

For our purposes, the sublime is probably best introduced as a sense of being near greatness, an aesthetic experience of finding something beautiful, but one that is mingled with awe. Traditional examples come from the experiences of 17th or 18th century explorers. As Hope Nicolson emphasises, it is generally associated with large scales, evoked in reference to grand scale views such as those from and over mountain ranges. Such large scales can refer to both time and space; the point is that the sublime object is so great it is (almost) inconceivable as it takes over the subject’s ability to comprehend. As Nicholson’s book suggests, the sublime describes the sense of majesty we might feel when faced with a mountain range. Rainforests or waterfalls are also classic examples, as is the night sky.

Formalised ideas of the sublime date back to the 18th century philosophical work of Edmund Burke (1756) and Immanuel Kant (1760). Crucially, Burke associates the sublime with a sense of terror, using this as a distinction between simple beauty and the sublime. Kant further distinguishes between what he dubbed the ‘dynamic’ and the ‘mathematical’ sublime. The former is akin to Burke’s notion of transfixing terror; the latter, however, extends notions of the sublime to something more abstract. In the presence of a large scale, of a sense of apparent infinity, Kant’s subject experiences the feelings of weakness and insignificance which go with being in awe. Yet, crucially, as the mathematical sublime is slightly more conceptual than the dynamic sublime: the subject then recovers a sense of superior self-worth with the thought that their mind was able to conceive something so large and powerful. As David Nye (1994) neatly puts it in his inspiring book American Technological Sublime, ‘the subject passes through humiliation and awe to a heightened awareness of reason’ (Nye, 1994: 7).

Yes, I have noticed the similarities between this and Douglas Adams’s tale of Zaphod Beeblebrox and the Total Perspective Vortex.

What I want to emphasise here is that the pleasure of experiencing the sublime, including this sense of intellectual superiority that comes with it, can be tied up in a sense of one’s significance in the world. Because of the feelings of awe and insignificance tied up in the experience of a sublime presence, allusions to the sublime ascribe power to the sublime object, or at least admit power and formalise it to some degree. Nye suggests the technological sublime invites the observer to interpret the power of technology as an expansion of human power and thus an achievement they can feel linked to (which is also why this is American technological sublime, it’s part of a sense of national identity). No longer do they necessarily feel like an insignificant human with respect to the power of nature: ‘One is both the all-seeing observer in a high tower and the ant-like pedestrian inching along the pavement below’ (Nye, 1994: 285).

I think we can extend Nye’s point to science too. Nye says a sense of awe at an awesome piece of technology makes us, in some ways, go wow at the people who made it (e.g. I bloody love bridges, skyscrapers make be go wow too, and all those twinkly lights on the side of Harrods at night are incredible). I say a sense of awe at science can make us go wow at clever scientists who worked things out too. Again, this is an achievement we can feel linked to in some way because they are other humans, even if we might also feel that these people are a bit cleverer than us. I’d also stress that I think this makes the sense of one’s significance in the world is in some respects a form of social significance. A sense of awe at science is not just a power relationship which mixes a sense of superiority and inferiority with nature (or an idea of a Maker) but with other people.

So, my point is that celebrating the awesome in popular science is in many respects celebrating the awesomeness of other people. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, maybe it’s a good thing. At best, the sense of a shared human ability to comprehend might mean non scientists feel a connection with science through invoking a sense of awe (a collective feeling of “omg, people are amaz-ing”). At worst, that sense of majesty gets carried over to the scientists, and audiences see a difference between their puny little brains and the great cleverness of others (a more divisive feeling connected to disconnects with scientific communities). I’m not sure which one wins out. My best guess is bits of both, and probably neither most of the time, entirely depends on context and individuals involved.

So, there is a politics embedded in the awesome – a story of human connection with natural objects, ideas and other people – and I think is worth bearing in mind.


  • Burke, Edmund (1757/ 1987) A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, edited by James T Boulton (Oxford: Basil Blackwell).
  • Haynes, Rosalind (1994) From Faust to Strangelove: representations of the scientist in western literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).
  • Nye, David (1994) American Technological Sublime (Camb, Mass: MIT Press).
  • Kenny, Neil (1998) Curiosity in Early Modern Europe: Word Histories (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1998).
  • Kant, Immanuel (1760/ 1960) Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, trans. JT Goldthwait (Berkeley: University of California Press).
  • Locke, Simon (2005) ‘Fantastically Reasonable: Ambivalence in the Representation of Science and Technology in Super-hero Comics’, Public Understanding of Science, vol. 14 (1): 25-46.
  • Marr, Alexander (2006) ‘Introduction’, in, RJW Evans & Alexander Marr (eds) Curiosity and Wonder from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Aldershot & Burlington: Ashgate) 1-20.
  • Mosco, Vincent (2004) The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace (Cambridge, MA & London: MIT Press).
  • Nicolson, Marjorie Hope (1959/ 1997) Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press).
  • Rousseau, George (2006) ‘Curiosity and the lusus naturae: The case of ‘Porteus’ Hill’ and Epilogue in, RJW Evans & Alexander Marr (eds) Curiosity and Wonder from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (Aldershot & Burlington: Ashgate) 213-250, 251-254.
  • Turney, Jon (2004) ‘The Abstract Sublime: Life as Information Waiting to be Rewritten’, Science as Culture, vol.13 no.1, pp.89-103.

EDIT 29/3: see also follow up post on considering the politics of the technological sublime at Milan station.

Science Communication 101 bibliography

A couple of months ago, a colleague asked me to post an introductory bibliography for science communication studies. I was slightly wary, because the literature in the field is rather scattered and can be a bit dense in places. Moreover, I don’t like the idea that you need to have read any particular source to understand science communication. I do think they can help, but you can learn about the topic in a range of ways. The idea of a science communication ‘canon’ is silly.

Still, inspired by a recent set of History of Psychology bibliographies and a great one at the Science and Democracy Network, I thought it might be useful. I’ve tried to give sources which are accessible: both in terms of being easy to read and being easy to find (and as much as possible, free to download).

Let me know if I’ve missed something you think is amazing and want to share with others. I should also say upfront that this is quite UK centric.

  • Science in Public, by Jane Gregory and Steve Miller. This textbook is comprehensive, clear and ever so slightly cynical (in a good way). Annoyingly, it is also about 15 years old. It looks a bit dated in places and I wish they’d do an update, but most of the content still stands up and it’s still the first book I’d recommend.
  • These two recent books from the OU on Science Communication in an Information Age are designed as introductions and are pretty good (even if they don’t really get to grips with what they mean by information age…).  I especially like the essays by Alan Irwin, Robert Doubleday, Jack Stilgoe, James Wilsdon, Sarah Davies and Felicity Mellor.
  • See Through Science by James Wilsdon and Rebbecca Willis, published by Demos. This is free, downloadable, clearly written and reasonably short. It’s the manifesto for ‘upstream’ science communication, but’s also a great introduction to ideas in public participation in science. I tell students to read it to help revise for exams. Other Demos publications The Public Value of Science and The Received Wisdom are recommended.
  • Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change provides a very clear run through the social studies of science which are relevant to science communication. Its focus is environmental science, but much of it is more broadly applicable. I can similarly recommend Steven Epstein’s  Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge as a book on a reasonably specific topic which manages to introduce a load of key ideas along the way.
  • The 2000 House of Lords Report on Science and Society. Yes, a Lords report that is totally readable and incredibly influential. For real. The government recently tried to update this with a series of more specific reports, and the one on trust is worth a read (though most of the others dated quite quickly). This recent study of scientists talking about public engagement from LSE’s BIOS Centre will also help bring things up to date.
  • If you want the classics, you should read Misunderstanding Science? from Alan Irwin and Brian Wynne. It’s worth listening to Wynne’s interview in the CBC “How to Think About Science” podcasts for a bit more context. Irwin’s Citizen Science is also worth a read. These will help explain why people bitch about a so-called ‘deficit model’. Stephen Hiltgartner’s paper on the ‘Dominant View’, is also useful for understanding a shift from talking down to the public about science and instead attempting to inspire conversations between science and society.
  • Peter Broks’ Understanding Popular Science is good for the long view, including some clear introductions to areas of social theory (or at least notions of ‘modernity’ etc). Don’t be put off by the title, it is about science communication in general (by which I mean it includes what some people prefer to call ‘engagement’ rather than ‘popular science’). If you like your social theory with a more sociological smell, try Science, Social Theory and Public Knowledge by Alan Irwin and Mike Michael.
  • Oh yeah, I edited a book once. I forgot about that. You should totally read that. Ok, don’t. It’s really rare, but the introduction, which you can download for free, is probably quite useful. My essay in that book – on the way we frame children’s relationships with science – is also free to download.
  • There is an Encyclopedia of Science Communication. Obviously it is BRILLIANT because I wrote two of the entries. It is also huge, heavy and £220. So… um, see if your local university library has a copy.
  • If you are interested in studies of what the public think/ know about science you really should try to get hold of Bauer et al’s ‘What can we learn from 25 years of PUS survey research’. It introduces all the main approaches and publications in this area, with brilliant clarity and fair context.
  • If you are interested in science in the news media, Stuart Allan’s Media, Risk and Science is a nice clear introductory textbook. I can also recommend this report from the University of Cardiff. It’s nothing especially shocking and starting to show its age, but I’ve found myself sharing it loads over the last couple of years as a great introduction to basic media analysis of science. Dorothy Nelkin’s Selling Science is another classic, and Martin Bauer’s longitudinal analysis of 20th century British science news is fascinating. There are loads of other great books on the topic, but they are quite rare.
  • If it’s popular science writing you are interested in, then have a read of some of Jon Turney’s essays on the topic. Elizabeth Leane’s Reading Popular Physics is also worth a look, and for a historical view, it’s hard to beat Fyfe and Lightman’s Science in the Marketplace (it’s not just about books either).
  • When it comes to ‘new-ish media’, science bloggers are a reflexive bunch and what they write about themselves is often worth a look. It doesn’t always have the same depth or breadth of view as you’d expect from academic research, but their subjective experience can be useful and interesting too. Ed Yong’s journalism category is certainly worth keeping a eye on. Alternatively, Brian Trench has some neat overviews of science online in these three books.

As with any list of introductory texts, it’s a bit vanilla in places. If you want the juicy bits, follow up the interesting sounding references in bibliographies. Or, for more up to date and detailed work, have a dig around the field’s main two journals: Public Understanding of Science and Science Communication. You might also find Science as Culture, the Social Studies of Science, and Science, Technology and Human Values useful. There is also the Journal of Science Communication – a fair amount of it is just masters’ dissertations, but these can be interesting and it’s open access.