I’ve finally got around to reading Fun Science by Charlie McDonnell, and after reading it I have quite a lot of thoughts about both the book itself and its potential value for science communication, so here they are:
Firstly, some context for people who haven’t heard of Charlie McDonnell. He’s a filmmaker/musician/ vlogger/presenter- and now an author too. Last month he released Fun Science (the book), inspired by his 2011 YouTube series of the same name. Fun Science (the show) has also returned, featuring another look at topics included in the book. (A playlist of all of the YouTube episodes is below).
The first part of Fun Science (the book) I’ll cover is its design and layout. While I wouldn’t normally think much about the design of a physical book, this one needs to be discussed because the design is unusual in a way that may polarise opinion. Fun Science is unusual because it is very obviously written for people who read and get their information online. It follows the style advice usually given to people writing online, such as using shorter paragraphs, adding a variety of text styles, leaving white space, and breaking the text up with formatting and images.
The coloured pages and use of block quotes, as well how the text is laid out interspersed with fact boxes and doodles, means it doesn’t read like a standard educational or even non-fiction book to me. The best description I can come up with is that it feels like an adapted set of blog posts put together following the visual style of magazine articles. For what I mean about its blog-like nature, a good example is the page below- note the amount of variations within how the text is presented just on one double-spread.
I’m just about old enough (or pedantic enough) to draw the line of wanting physical books to stay looking like physical books, while encouraging online writing to experiment and adapt, so for me the book’s style errs slightly towards being distracting. However, looking at the book from the perspective of its intended audience, the design makes a lot of sense.
Given that a large proportion of the audience are school-aged, many will currently think of books as school work, as arbitrary work that must be read to complete assignments regardless of personal interest or meaning. The choice to make the book look as different as possible from “school books”, and closer to a magazine or a blog, will probably make it far more approachable for an audience who may be reluctant readers, or used to books belonging to school and other media belonging to leisure. From that perspective, it may be a way to encourage people who learn from other via video to give books another try.
Fun Science’s writing also reinforces this idea as the book reads 100% in Charlie’s voice, sounding exactly as if he was explaining the ideas in a vlog. Again, this may put off older or more new-media-skeptic people, but it makes sense for the intended audience. In terms of tone, the writing is light-hearted and jokey, with a lot of digressions, asides, sarcastic (fictional) Editor’s notes, and an abundance of puns. It pokes fun at the amount of the universe we still don’t know anything about, and at the often counter-intuitive ways ideas have been proposed or rejected. My one criticism here is that the book may go a little too far with jokes at scientists’ expense, but that one may also be an audience-awareness point.
In terms of scientific content and language, the book tries hard to keep ideas grounded in their value and importance without making them overrun by details. Mostly, this works well, providing simple explanations with callbacks to previous topics that both reinforce the connections between them and their relevance to us (and Charlie deserves a lot of credit for even trying to explain string theory in a page, let alone doing a pretty good job of it). However, on a few occasions, the book skims through new terms too quickly before establishing their relevance, leaving a few paragraphs feeling a bit disjointed.
Chapter 7 (The Cell) was the first section where I was learning entirely new information from the book, rather than just refreshing my memory and learning additional details. So for me, this chapter was the strongest test of Charlie’s ability to communicate the science, and also where I found the small space given to each topic to be more limiting than with the other chapters. However, this is again understandable given the breadth of science the book intends to cover.
The only other criticism I would make is that while the big-to-small structure usually works quite well, and helps to keep the book telling an interesting story, it’s less effective at the end of the book. For example, the Earth chapter brings up elements way before the Elements chapter, while the Elements chapter references subatomic particles in the chapter before they’re explained.
Looking at Fun Science as a whole, it achieves its aim of providing a brief, clear, and interesting overview of different areas of science to teens. As a book of science information, it’s quite effective. But it’s in going beyond science facts where Charlie has made this book meaningful.
I’ve heard quite a lot online from people against the current craze of “YouTuber books”, with many people seeing a lot of YouTuber’s books as vanity projects, released to add another source of revenue rather than out of any pre-existing passion for writing. I haven’t read any other books by YouTubers, so I can’t comment on that opinion. But what I will say is that argument definitely does not apply here.
Charlie proves that Fun Science is not a vanity project in the prologue, which for me is the most meaningful part of the book and the part which makes it more than a science trivia book. The average prologue can be an ego trip where the author talks about why they’re equipped to write that particular book and why you should listen to them. Fun Science is the opposite. Charlie uses the prologue to explain that he is not a scientist and is not uniquely knowledgeable or special in regards to science; instead, he is a science fan who is passionate about sharing science and encouraging people to be interested in it. To do this, he discusses how his audience may see science due to the influence of school, and why this school-based definition doesn’t reflect how valuable and important science is.
Finally, he directly says that the aim of Fun Science isn’t for people to be impressed with his knowledge, but for them to be inspired to seek out more science information or science communication. By doing that, the prologue may have just introduced the concept of science communication and science communicators to thousands of people- who knows what the effect of that could be?