I love popular science and math as a genre. I read a lot of it, and I hope to write it. But I find that a lot of it grates my nerves, enough that I end up not finishing a lot of the pieces I start reading. Others have criticized over-reliance on story-telling/journalistic tropes, such as "the solitary, misunderstood genius" or "the race against a bitter rival". These allow us to simplify the complex story, fitting it onto a familiar framework that makes it easier to understand, at the cost of sacrificing some of the (sometimes) important details. I think metaphors are awesome, and I think humans are wired to look for those story structures. So carefully done, I like the story-telling aspect (but it is a problem in journalism).
One thing that bugs me about much of it is that, particularly for book-length popular science, they end up being nothing more than long, printed lectures. The mode of communication is info-dump. And I'm pretty well convinced that info-dump doesn't really accomplish much. Yes, it's info-dump wrapped in an engaging story, but that just means that the reader comes away remembering only the story. They don't really remember much of the science/math content except as a vague and inspiring jumble of impressions.
"There was something about black holes. And a bet."
"The proof involved two fields that seemed unrelated, until the solitary genius figured out how to connect them."
"Wow my life feels inadequate after reading about that lonely genius"
The single biggest thing that grates on me about the entire genre, however, is the introduction, in which the writer explains, proudly, how they've worked very hard to remove all traces of mathematics and equations from the work. Probably because I actually am a physicist and a teacher, I really want those equations and I also want the engaging story and the metaphors.
What's the point of popular science? I'm sure that other writers are accomplishing their own goals with the structure, so I'm not really pointing at them -- but my goal is for learning to happen. Persistent re-wiring of brain structure to facilitate new thinking and new skills. We know all too well that that doesn't happen when you lecture. It happens when the learner is actively doing something. So what I want is active-reading popular science.
How do you write popular science that forces/invites the reader to engage and struggle?
Is there an audience out there that would choose popular science like that?
English and history teachers may be amused that I want to re-invent active reading. But here's the idea:
Force the reader to read actively by tying them to the Great Chain of Frustration. The book has active content that requires the reader to make a prediction before you can continue reading, and make those predictions test their intuition -- make them wrong often enough that they know careful attention and thought is required.
And then force them to create an explanation of what they have learned. That explanation might be in the form of text, a drawing, linked video or audio, annotations on the page, but it has to be linked to the location the book that led to the discrepancy and the learning so they can see it again when they page through the book. Maybe their annotations get added to the index automatically.
Some questions are there about how to do this. And whether the annotation layer should be shared publicly (or some of it public to encourage conversation with others) or held completelely private, but it definitely has to be re-visitable by the reader who created it. And it has to be persistent enough and easy enough to maintain that the reader will be able to keep all of that in the same way they can currently keep their highlighting and marginalia on physical books.