Does popular science have sub-genres
My central question her is if popular science books are sold in categories (natural history, astronomy, history), are they consumed the same way?
Below is a screen-grab of the science page on the website for a large UK bookselling chain. It's cropped to show off the categories the books are presented in (click on pic for link to flickr to see larger version). Obviously, bookselling websites categorise/ cross-categorise in different ways from door-and-window-bookshops, but seeing as I didn't have my camera with me, I think it'll do as an illustration of the way we sort science publishing.
Gower Street Waterstone's has one of the largest Popular Science sections in London: a little room located after bays and bays of textbooks (it's a campus bookshop), just before you hit the coffee shop. I know it pretty well, but today noticed something I hadn't registered before: Astronomy, Natural History and Birdwatching all have their own special set of shelves, just next to those emblazoned 'Popular Science'.
I thought this was significant. If you want a popular science book, you go to the shelves marked 'Popular Science'. But the booksellers seem to think that if you specifically want popular astronomy, you'll go direct to their sub-section. It's a bit like the distinction between 'general fiction' and 'crime' or 'science fiction and fantasy', and just as problematic. I wondered if this related in some way to my years of thinking 'space is boring'. As with sci fi, or about any hobby/ special interest, it's special spaces can feel a bit off-putting to outsiders (Ooo, "the spaces of Space", there's a title for a cultural studies paper in there somewhere).
Arguably, a lot of Astronomy, Natural History and Birdwatching books aren't really 'popular science', just non-professional science. 'Hobbiest science' if you will. Still, many bookshops theme within their pop sci shelves - not just by author, but 'evolution', 'history of science', 'cosmology', etc - and I think the general attempt to categorise is worth noting. It reminds me slightly of when I worked in an Oxfam shop briefly as a teenager and we were told to display stock by colour, because that's how they thought customers looked for second hand clothes.
There are similar categorisations implemented for children's science books; noticeably largely around what Basil Bernstein would call the 'collected codes' of school-science. Bookshops have to sort things into one place or another. We all do. Without getting too philosophical, it is a function of contemporary life. The increasingly anachronistic categories we use for science frustrate us in a vareity of contexts (see, for example the fascinating debate between the Nobel Committee and New Scientist).
This relates to something I've been wondering a bit about over the last week: the noticeable absence of astrobiology books for kids. Even a book entitled ‘Space, Stars and Slimy Aliens’ largely uses aliens as a sort of joke from which they can contrast their ‘serious science’ (see Brian Clegg's review). I'd put this down to astrobiology being a relatively new field, combined with children's publishing being so infamously conservative. However, maybe part of the problem is that astrobiology is somewhat interdisciplinary: just as inter/ multi-disciplinary researchers can find it hard to locate themselves in the academy, they can also stumble within the sub-genres of popular science? Are there other interdisciplinary science subjects that don't get covered in children's publishing? (Even though, popular science for adults is arguably a space for interdisciplinarity).
This is largely a side-point though.To reiterate the question at the top of this post: if popular science books are sold in categories (natural history, astronomy, history), are they consumed as such? Are there sub-genres to popular science books, and fans for each genre? I wish someone could do some decent audience research on what people like about popular science, when, and why. For now, I can only guess at answers, but I'm interested to know other people's guesses too.