Who says science books are dull?

Yao Minji
As the recent Shanghai Book Fair showed us, writers and publishers are coming up with new ways to present science in a way that is understandable and entertaining.
Yao Minji

Mona Lisa is famous for her smile, but Lin Fengsheng, a science writer and painter, suggests that behind the smile lurks the possibility that Leonardo da Vinci’s model was suffering from some disease.

In his book “Master Paintings on the Left, Science on the Right,” the author quotes discoveries from doctors about traces in that and other famous portraits that might reveal the health of the people who posed.

The author suggests that the slightly bulged inner-eye corner and bloated hands of Mona Lisa may signal that the model was suffering from a disorder of the endocrine disorders.

The book, released earlier this year, is one of an increasing number of Chinese books that try to make science more attractive to readers who might otherwise be turned off by the subject.

Who says science books are dull?

“Master Paintings on the Left, Science on the Right” 

For years, science books for adults or children were popularly thought to be too specialized or difficult to become mainstream or top sellers. That perception is changing, if the long queues at book fairs, regular reading activities, bestseller lists and various surveys related to science writing are any indication.

According to one survey by Beijing OpenBook Info, which specializes in research on the publishing market, sales of science books have increased gradually in the last 10 years. The publication of such books has risen 70 percent since 2007.

Many science books target children, one of the most lucrative sectors in the book market.

Lu Weixi, 12, has been going to the Shanghai Book Fair with his grandfather for seven years. Each time, he brings children’s books home. He has always been interested in dinosaurs, plants and adventure stories.

His curiosity has expanded to popular science books since last year.

“I thought they would be difficult or boring, but my grandfather took me to some science lectures by very famous scientists, which turned to be quite fun,” he says. “I also joined natural science hobby groups at school and found the lab experiments really cool.”

Who says science books are dull?

This year, half of the books Lu brought home from the Shanghai Book fair are science-related, including some that target grown-ups. One of them, “Philosopher’s Stones Series,” is a newly published selection of imported science books, re-edited with audio guides from Chinese scientists and science writers in the related field.

The series, launched 20 years ago, includes the biographies of star scientists and accessible interpretations of the most advanced discoveries. One of the latest books in the series is “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History” by John Barry, which puts the 1918 epidemic in the context of medical history and the never-ending battle against such diseases.

“We started publishing this series of science books 20 years ago because we lacked books of this kind at the time and wanted to learn from the best,” says Kuang Zhiqiang, deputy editor-in-chief of the Shanghai Scientific and Technological Education Publishing House, which has released 129 books in the series.

“Fortunately, we have learned and we have improved greatly compared with 20 years ago,” he tells Shanghai Daily. “The number of science writers and readers has also expanded gradually, but much better than before. It’s still a small genre compared with other books or compared with publications in many developed countries, so we have a lot more work to do in encouraging domestic science writers and expanding readership.”

In the quest to popularize science, most publishers initially focused on importing international bestsellers in the genre. Today, however, domestic editions comprise about half of the market share, thanks to increasing number of famous scientists and young researchers who have made it their mission to make science more fun and accessible.

Who says science books are dull?

“The Georgian Star”

Who says science books are dull?

“Dinosaurs Are No Fun”

For a long time, Chinese science writers considered scientific accuracy the priority of their works, which involved technical language and theories that readers found hard, if not impossible, to comprehend. Even Li Miao, a physics professor who has become one of the most popular science e-celebrities in China, with half a million fans on Weibo, admitted that he started on the wrong foot.

“We haven’t had a long tradition of popularizing scientific theories in China, so even when some scientists started trying to do that, it was easy to fail,” he says. “We still lack enough good science writers, who don’t necessarily need to be the most established experts in their fields. The priority is to make scientific theories intriguing and accessible.”

Kuang, who has edited science books for decades, agreed with Li on the essentials of accessible science books.

“Our mission is to introduce the latest science discoveries and the most advanced and inspiring science theories, but we must also remember readers’ needs,” he explains.

“They want content to be relevant, the writing style to be fun and the design of the books to be innovative, among other considerations,” he added. “We take all this into account when planning new books. And we also organize science book reading events and utilize social media platforms to promote not only our books, but science readership in general.”

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