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Understanding science

A collection of books offers a new generation of Brazilian readers scientific topics written in attractive language

DANIEL BUENOThe Brazilian science book market, the kind that seek to translate scientific topics into common language, has gained unusual impetus (for Brazil) in the last ten years. The advent of collections of this kind, launched by university and commercial publishers, has driven the attention of readers to a crop of works on topics ranging from astronomy and biology to mathematics. These collections also focus on current topics such as climate change, stem cells, and neuroscience. “Of all the modes of science dissemination, books provide the most substantial and profound approach,” says physicist Marcelo Knobel, Dean of Undergraduate Courses at the State University of Campinas, who is responsible for the release of a new collection of science books by Meio de Cultura, the university’s publishing house.

Of the six books launched so far by Unicamp, five are translations from the original. The publishing company made sure that the chosen authors were not from the Anglo-Saxon world, which is more heavily covered by the large publishing companies. One of the books is Dez teorias que comoveram o mundo [Ten theories that moved the world], by the Argentine authors Leonardo Moledo, director of the Buenos Aires Planetarium, and Esteban Magnani, a professor of scientific journalism. The book describes crucial moments in the production of knowledge, ranging from the heliocentrism of Nicholas Copernicus to Einstein’s theory of relativity, showing how the genius of the great scientists was supported by a process of collective construction in which most of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle were brought together through trial and error, thanks to many researchers who have not always become part of history. “The spread of science is the continuation of science through other means,” Moledo says. Another book in the collection, A extinção dos tecnossauros [The extinction of technosaurs], by the Italian author Nicola Nosengo, has a similar ambition and focuses on technological transformations and their successes and failures, exploring the journeys of promising devices that came to grief when tested in the market, or which, after becoming essential to peoples’ lives for a long time, became obsolete and turned into museum pieces. “The essential feature of this collection is that the books be well written and pleasant to read,” says Marcelo Knobel.

The Vieira & Lent publishing house, based in Rio de Janeiro, was founded in 2002, with the main objective of divulging science, although it also publishes books in the fields of education and the humanities. The company’s catalogue comprises 70 books and its bestseller is the book O cérebro nosso de cada dia [Our everyday brain], by Suzana Herculano-Houzel, which sold 30 thousand copies – an impressive number by Brazilian standards. Suzana Herculano-Houzel is a neuroscientist from the Biomedical Sciences Institute at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). The owner of the publishing house, neuroscientist Roberto Lent, was recently awarded the 30th José Reis Science Dissemination award for the dissemination of science, granted by the CNPq funding agency. Before establishing Vieira & Lent, the neuroscientist already had an extensive curriculum of contributions to make science more popular; his column is published in the Ciência Hoje journal, of which he was one of the founders. He also wrote several books on science for children and adults. “Scientific discoveries and new technologies draw people’s interest and are a source of themes that never run out,” says Lent. He points out that his publishing company, though well positioned in the market, is not a highly profitable venture. “We have managed to hang in there and to launch new books. This line of business might be easier for other publishing houses, which publish many translated scientific books, but we prefer Brazilian authors. It’s complicated, because publishing these books by Brazilian authors is much more expensive,” he states.

Daily work
It is a fact that the performance of the Brazilian market is light years away from the markets of developed countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, where leading scientists such as astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, zoologist Richard Dawkins and biologist Stephen Jay Gould have achieved huge success in their careers as authors of books on science, and have sold millions of copies worldwide. The Brazilian market is also small compared to that of our neighbor, Argentina. In Argentina, a collection of 32 books on science, called Ciência que Ladra, which explores the science that underlies day-to-day activities, sold more than one million books. The collection’s bestsellers are four books on mathematics, by the journalist and professor Adrián Paenza, which together sold 500 thousand copies. “The school of Anglo-Saxon science has taught us that it is possible to read books on scientific topics with passion, as if they were novels,” said Argentine biologist Diego Golombek in an interview to the Clarin newspaper. Golombek, a professor at the National University of Quilmes, is the organizer of the book collection. “The important thing is to surprise the reader, helping him understand a phenomenon of nature by reading about it in a pleasurable manner,” he states. In Brazil, three books from the Ciência que Ladra collection were launched by the Editora Civilização Brasileira publishing house, part of the Record group, but not very many copies have been sold so far. Neuroscientist Iván Izquierdo has a university degree from Argentina and has lived in Brazil for a number of years. He works as a researcher at the Catholic University/PUC in Rio Grande do Sul. Based on his background, he defines the difference between the two countries. “Argentina has a 200-year old cultural tradition and Brazil has only half this number. Even the Portuguese language took some time to take hold as the national standard, because French was the language of the elite. Slavery and the fact that the country was a monarchy were among the reasons for this,” says Izquierdo, who has had successful experiences in the market of scientific books. His book A arte de esquecer – Cérebro, memória e esquecimento [The art of forgetting]. The brain, memory and forgetting (Vieira & Lent) uses simple language to narrate the neuroscientist’s research work on the mechanisms of memory. A second updated edition of this book is to be published shortly and will also be launched in Spanish by a Mexican publishing house. “The title of the book arouses the attention of readers and the receptiveness to this book was a pleasant surprise,” states Izquierdo.

“Inventando o Futuro” (Inventing the future collection)

In Brazil, the science book market has barely come out of its infancy; therefore, it is no trivial matter that a significant collection of books that did not exist until the late 1990’s has been published. The understanding of scientific topics stimulates critical thinking and is considered a prerequisite for the democratization of information and to encourage academic and technological careers. “We need to arouse the curiosity of children and young people to scientific topics if we want to continue producing science,” says Shoshana Signer, a civil engineer and founder of Oficina de Textos, a publishing company that publishes academic books. Since 2004, the company has published Inventando o Futuro [Inventing the future], a collection of science books on such cutting-edge topics as nanotechnology, energy, free radicals, DNA and the Amazon Region. “In spite of the modest return on sales, I believe that the publishing company’s social mission is to deal with this issue. Unless people have a perception of scientific themes, it will be difficult to deal with the bottlenecks related to the training of human resources and to the challenges of development,” she states.

Science books of this kind first became popular in the mid-nineteenth century, when they began to be published in countries such as France, Germany, and England. Many scientists recall authors of this genre who had aroused their curiosity during their childhood and adolescence. The divulging of science also played a role in the profession-related choices of physicians, engineers and technicians. Einstein, for example, was an avid reader of books by Henri Poincaré, a philosopher, physicist and mathematician who wrote several books on these topics at the turn of the century. Physicist Cylon Gonçalves da Silva, professor emeritus at Unicamp and author of the recently launched book De sol a sol, energia no século XXI [From dawn to dusk, energy in the twenty-first century], published by Oficina de Textos, mentions the influence of Fritz Kahn (1888-1968), a German Jewish physician and author of books on astronomy and medicine, especially about the human body. “I was an adolescent living in the hinterlands of the State of Rio Grande do Sul and I thirsted after information on science and technology. It was the time of the Sputnik and the atom bomb. And Fritz Kahn had a huge influence on me,” says Cylon, who, besides writing books, is coordinating the collection’s launch. “The topics nowadays are also fascinating: genetic engineering, climate change, electronics…” When writing De sol a sol, Cylon tried to convey the challenges of energy production into ordinary language. “The objective is to show children and young people how crucial the energy issue is and the importance of looking for sustainable energy sources. Brazil is a privileged country because most of its energy comes from renewable sources. But the control of energy production is a fundamental issue. Without this, the survival of our civilization is at stake,” he states. The first chapter of the book narrates the nightmare of a world without electric power; the chapter is in the form of a comic strip. However, the collection makes no concession to scientific rigor. “The reader must be curious about the theme and show an interest in understanding it,” says Cylon. In the 1980’s, Cylon headed the implementation of the National Synchrotron Light Laboratory; in 2000, he was one of the organizers of the National Science, Technology and Innovation Conference, held in 2001. At present, he is associate coordinator of FAPESP for special programs.

Cutting-edge topics
Books which spread science have another more specific mission, which is to clarify public opinion on cutting-edge scientific themes – and the journey of one of the books from the Oficina de Textos collection is an example of this. The book is O mundo nanométrico: a dimensão do novo século [The nanometric world: the dimension of a new century], by Henrique Toma, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Chemistry Institute; the book was launched in 2004. “Nanotechnology was the fashionable topic in the whole world and very few people had grasped the dimension of this theme, which encompasses several fields of science at the same time,” says Toma. At first, the book was a bestseller among another group of people. “It was first read by businessmen and executives interested in investing in this technology. I gave many lectures at companies on nanotechnology and the book helped this audience understand what I was talking about,” says Toma, who had been involved with the organization of the Nanotech Expo for five years. Nanotech was a trade fair for nanotechnological products and it was held in São Paulo from 2003 to 2008. Recently, Toma hosted a group of Iranian scientists at the University of São Paulo. On this occasion, Toma understood the role the book had played. “The scientists told me that in Iran, the launching of any cutting-edge project always comes with a scientific strategy of dissemination to attract the attention of public opinion. As the themes are all new, the natural tendency is rejection, and it is common for NGOs to win the public opinion battle by publicizing the pernicious potential of science, which always exists. Two such examples are transgenic products and stem cells,” he adds.

Detail from the book “De Sol a Sol” (From dawn to dusk  by Cylon Gonçalves”)

The book has become a bestseller five years after its launch. It was adopted by schools and an updated version is also to be launched in Spanish by a Mexican publishing company. “This was part of a natural process. It took some time for the topic to mature and only now it is understood by high school teachers they have started to use the book in their classes,” he explains. All of this happened by chance. A former student of Toma that now teaches at São Paulo’s Colégio Bandeirantes school read the book and showed it to the school’s science coordinator. “Shortly after that, I was invited to lecture to teachers and to students and the teachers started using the book in their classes. A number of schools followed the Bandeirantes example. Last year alone, I was invited to give more than 40 lectures at high schools,” says Toma, who stresses the importance of researchers undertaking to write for the lay person. “It’s unfortunate that books on disseminating science are not acknowledged by universities. My work can be mentioned 100 times in a scientific article; but the number of people who have read the book on nanotechnology is far higher,” he states.

A common criticism voiced by publishers and writers is that, in spite of recent advances, Brazilian book stores lack specific shelf space for books that divulge science. As a result, readers have difficulty recognizing the genre and finding its books. “The issue is that bookstores should make the book visible, which isn’t easy,” says neuroscientist and writer Suzana Herculano-Houzel. She says that it is common to find her books on bookshelves that hold books on “mentalism.” “I still don’t understand what this word means,” she adds. Another successful book, A arte de esquecer [The art of forgetting], by Iván Izquierdo, is usually found on the self-help shelf, says publisher Roberto Lent. “Bookstore owners still persist in believing that books of this kind don’t sell, and they end up being sold at the university bookstores at science centers,” says Lent. In his opinion, the problem is that the prevailing ideology in Brazil separates science and culture. “This is an issue related to cultural tradition. Most culture sections in newspapers rarely focus on scientific topics, unless the topic focuses on philosophy or ethics, as in the case of abortion or stem cells. It is as if science were one thing and culture another, which is not the case in other countries,” he says. As a result, he adds, scientific education books are hardly ever taken into account in public bids for the purchase of books for libraries, a major source of revenue for small publishing companies.

However, what are the ingredients for a science book to be successfully sold in Brazil? Basically, the recipe is the same as for any other kind of book. “The book has to be well written and engage the reader’s attention. A good writer is always a good writer, regardless of the genre of literature,” says Marcelo Knobel, from Unicamp. “I write so that the lay person can understand it and it’s incredible how pleased readers are when they manage to understand something that they had seen as inaccessible,” says Suzana Herculano-Houzel. Her bestselling book, Fique bem com seu cérebro [Keep on good terms with your brain] (Sextante) is a science divulging book marketed as a self-help book. At the end of each chapter there is always a paragraph with practical tips on the issue covered in that chapter, such as how to train the brain and to keep that memory. “It’s very gratifying to get messages from readers who applied the recommendations and benefitted from them,” she says.

Certain circumstances help, such as the eagerness of readers for certain topics. Neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro, head of the laboratory of the Edmond e Lily Safra Neurosciences Institute in Natal City, attributes this to how the book is received.  Maconha, cérebro e saúde [Marijuana, the brain and health] (Vieira & Lent), which he wrote together with neurophysiologist Renato Malcher-Lopes. “There is a huge amount of interest in this topic and the failure of the war on drugs has put the issue in the limelight,” says Sidarta. Neuroscience topics generally sell well. Astronomy is another popular subject: astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser is Brazil’s best-selling author at present. His books focus on physics and astronomy through a narration full of metaphors. Of course, his fame carries a lot of weight. A Brief History of Time, by astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, was a huge success. “As this book is very hard to understand and the translation was very poor, the only explanation for such huge success is the author’s life story, an exceptional researcher who suffers from a degenerative disease,” says Roberto Lent.

The big commercial publishing houses started investing in this genre a few years ago. The Zahar publishing house has 3 books on science among its 10 current bestsellers: The Drunkard’s Walk, by Leonard Mlodinow, a brief history of probability and statistics; Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities, by Ian Stewart; and Do big bang ao universo eterno [From the big bang to the eternal universe], by Mário Novello. The Record publishing company, one of Brazil’s biggest, began publishing science dissemination books in the late 1990’s, when Simon Singh’s book Fermat’s Last Theorem, on a major mathematical enigma, became a bestseller; so far, 62 thousand copies have been sold. Record now has several books in fields such as mathematics, physics and biology, which account for 1% of its catalogue. “We were the first of the big publishing houses to acknowledge this market,” says Luciana Villas-Boas, publishing director of Record. She says that the bestselling books are those that focus on the human dimensions of major scientific issues, such as Michael White’s Productive Rivalry. Michael White, who wrote biographies of Darwin and Newton, dissects eight arguments in the history of science, such those between Antoine Lavoisier and Joseph Priestley, Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, and Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. Another best seller is the book Criação imperfeita [Imperfect creation], by the physicist Marcelo Gleiser, which sold 25 thousand copies. “We are not quite sure who the readers are, but they seem to include students and professionals interested in scientific topics and in good books.” In Luciana’s opinion, this is a niche that has all the elements to grow. “We are going to focus strongly on good books of this kind,” she states.