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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.

screengrab - Waterstone's Science Books

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.

screengrab - Waterstone's Kid's Non-fiction

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.


I offer the observation that I *hate* charity shops where they arrange things by colour. I have stopped shopping in Oxfam as a result.

Normally, in a charity shop, I will be looking for, let's say, a new top. I will probably have some idea of the kind of top I want, but I'll be flexible about what colour it should be. Arranging them by colour means I have to look in five different places for a top instead of one.

As Oxfam's categories (colour) are different to the categories I have in my head they are not making my browsing easier. In fact they are making it harder.

It's possible this is true for categories in pop sci too.

In the defence of Oxfam. Apparently they only did it because Benetton told them to. And Benetton only did it because psychologists told them to.

So it's science's fault really.


"the booksellers seem to think that if you specifically want popular astronomy, you'll go direct to their sub-section."

Do they, though? I don't know that particular branch so well, but my experience in other shops - especially more academic ones such as Foyles - has been that often you'll find copies of the same book in more than one section. So, for example, a popular astronomy book could be found in both Astronomy (with the "serious" astronomy books) and also in Popular Science (along with the popular paleontology, popular physics, etc).

Of course, that's possible for a bookshop, who will usually have multiple copies. Less easy for an individual, who may have make numerous compromises if they want to sort their own personal library by category. Is this book Astronomy or Cosmology? Where does Evolution end and Psychology begin, and should I create a new section for Evolutionary Psychology even though I've only currently got one book to put in it? And will that eventually cross over with Economics? Is it acceptable to have a section which (even just in my head) is simply known as "that kind of book"?

All of that is slightly off topic, of course. To answer your actual question - yes, there are definitely (hard to define) sub-genres and there are clearly fans for each. I'll snap up almost anything in the "popular medicine" line (hello, Ben Goldacre), and palaentology is fun (RIP, Stephen Jay Gould), but I can take or leave climatology, especially once it veers too close to environmentalism. Those aren't hard or fast rules, of course, but "popular science" is definitely a very broad label.


I thought about putting in a bit about how books are stored in multiple sections. However, even Gower St's large set of pop sci stock, it's unlikely that they'll have too many copies of any of these titles (so they won't be shelved like that). Obviously, big names like Gould or Goldacre get shelved in about 6 places, but the latest Sky At Night book is probably just in the astronomy section.

When I worked in a bookshop, I had a collegue who'd take great pleasure in taking customers clasping the Daily Mail review of The Line of Beauty (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2004/sep/22/bookerprize2004.bookerprize1) over to the LGBT section, rather than the piles and piles in general fiction... :)

As for your own books - that's something to shelve by colour http://www.flickr.com/photos/santos/27538777/

There do seem to be some sub-categories which have a strong presence for bookstores and publishers - astronomy being the most obvious example, I think. (Note that there are astronomy mags - three, is it? - as well).

Pedantically, though, they are not sub-genres, because popular science itself is not actually a genre. Pop-science books may draw on all genres. (You may just possibly have heard me say this before!).


I have heard you (and many other people...) say that before. However, until anyone gives me a better excuse than "to be pedantic..." I will continue to call pop sci a genre, albeit semi-metaphorically so.

A decent reliable definition of genre which shows how it would exclude pop sci would do. Until I get one, I'll stick with wikipedia: "Genres are vague categories with no fixed boundaries, they are formed by sets of conventions, and many works cross into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions".

(which sounds v like pop sci to me)