Aiming at Different Audiences

By Sean Carroll | April 22, 2012 10:50 am

When I wrote From Eternity to Here, I was faced with a perennial problem for pop-physics authors: how to write a book that will appeal to the aficionados (although not scientists themselves) who have already devoured everything Brian Greene and Lisa Randall have ever written, but also be understandable and interesting to folks who don’t know much more about Einstein than the fact that he rarely combed his hair? I came across a short blog review that claims I wasn’t entirely successful in balancing the competing requirements, and it might be a fair criticism.

But one small complaint is I’m not sure if he’s quite exactly worked out his audience. Early in the book, I was starting to fear it would be a rehash of stuff I already knew. It’s not. But there were some elementary rehashes that, frankly, I think if someone went into the book not having that knowledge already, they aren’t going to be able to grok the rest. This is not a mathematically demanding book, but it is a conceptually demanding book, and I am not sure if someone who doesn’t have some limited grounding in the mathematics side will be able to make it through the conceptual side without missing a lot.

The diagnosis is completely accurate. On the one hand, I do spend time going over the basics of relativity, quantum mechanics, and logarithms, in ways that hopefully make these ideas accessible to people who haven’t ever tried to understand them before. On the other hand, the meaty middle section of the book is conceptually very challenging for almost everybody, even if you are a regular consumer of popular physics books. We are simply not used to thinking in ways that don’t presume the arrow of time from the start, and some of the issues that arise are highly non-intuitive. I tried to keep things fun and engaging, but there’s no question that certain pages of the book require careful thinking and brain work.

What to do? I’m not sure that, given the material I wanted to cover in this book, there is much else one could do. Probably I could have had less about the basics of relativity, and moved what there is until later in the book. But although the central ideas are conceptually very challenging, I don’t think they’re actually inaccessible to anyone who is willing to put some thought into them, regardless of mathematical background. So I don’t regret that I didn’t write a leaner and more challenging book aimed only at the aficionados, although I appreciate that something along those lines might have been more focused. I think that the aficionados just have to get used to reading introductions to GR and QM from a wide variety of different books — at least until those topics become part of the standard high-school curriculum.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I think we’re kind of at the point now where the market is getting a bit saturated with kitchen sink introductions. I think it’s fine to point readers to other popularizations if they wish to get more of an introduction. I’ve come to realize I could have stopped with Feynman’s non-technical oeuvre and Wheeler’s “A Journey Into Gravitation and Spacetime” if I wanted to know the basics of the basics, though I do think Brian Greene’s “The Fabric of the Cosmos” stands up to those very well. Anyway, a lot of good stuff is already out there. Why reinvent it? Pointing folks in the right direction and then cutting to the chase makes a lot of sense to me.

  • Greenfairy

    Interesting. I have Brian Greene in my to-be-read pile; had never heard of Lisa Randall, but will check her out. Will definitely have to give your book a shot.

  • Andy

    Speaking as one of the ‘aficionados’ who has read everything by Brian Greene and others (though not Lisa Randall – I’ll have to look for her) I don’t get tired of the GR and QM introductions. It is difficult enough to grasp that I always seem to gain a little better understanding of it by reading yet another perspective. I’ve read your book, and I think I was able to ‘grok’ about a third of the new stuff.

  • DMcK

    Seconding what Andy says. I don’t get tired of the intros either. Some day they may sink a bit below the surface. I’m sure you (Sean) are not beating yourself up over any of this, but being forced to stretch ourselves is the only way we non-experts are going to advance our understanding. Congrats on a mind-lengthening book!

  • CR

    I’m not sure that there’s anything wrong with giving introductions that a lay audience can grasp even if the later material is far more challenging. Learning is partly about capturing someone’s interest and demonstrating that there’s value on the other side of the challenge for them as an individual.

  • Eli Rabett

    Put the intro stuff on line with a link in the book? Better, put the book on line with the intro stuff in the book.

  • Chris

    I think that the aficionados just have to get used to reading introductions to GR and QM from a wide variety of different books — at least until those topics become part of the standard high-school curriculum.

    You’ll be waiting a long time for that. Sadly science is barely a part of the standard high-school curriculum right now. And then when they do have it in high school, they don’t retain it. You don’t know how many times I’ve heard “It’s been years since I saw that.” OK fair enough, I don’t expect you to remember every detail, but it’s been over a decade since I was in high school and I still know the plot of Moby Dick. There should be some details which they should retain, but they don’t.

  • Anon

    How about putting the intro stuff in an appendix instead? (Can you have those in popular books?) Those who need the background can get your version there. Those who don’t can jump straight into the fun stuff.

  • Bob F.

    When I got to the parts in the book about general relativity and quantum mechanics, I was able to read them quickly since they weren’t new to me. What took most of my concentration was all the detail on entropy, because that was.

    In “Eternity” and the other books and videos of yours I have, the explanations are very good and clear. If there had been more equations, that would have been OK as long as they were derived. My opinion is the same for books by Michio Kaku.

    While I like Brian Greene, his books tend to be more simple than what I look for. Even more so for Brian Cox. As for Lisa Randall, I liked Warped Passages, but she tends to get bogged down in background material before making a point, and I found that hard to get through.

    Basically, as long as you write them, I’ll read them. And if you followed up with additional videos from The Learning Company, I’d buy those, too.

  • Puff the Mutant Dragon

    This is a perennial problem in writing about any kind of science. You have to simplify to reach a broader audience. But when you simplify something, you run the risk of leaving out details that you need in order to truly understand the topic. And in many cases it’s difficult to get into the really interesting parts of your subject — the stuff that actually makes it cool — without adding details that may overwhelm some segment of your readership. Other segments of your readership, by contrast, may find your simplified explanation boring and unnecessary because it’s stuff they already know. So it’s difficult to hit the right balance.

  • Nolan

    For what it is worth I think of myself in what you would call the aficionado category and I found From Eternity to Here to be an outstanding text. While it has been some time since I finished reading it one thing that struck me is ultimately the book was all leading back to the central questions of understanding the low entropy origins of the universe and of the nature of time itself. Even for someone that has read many of the popular books out there, it seems you cannot just gloss over a basic discussion of how we came to develop our modern ideas about these questions.

  • Rob R.


    I think that the aficionados just have to get used to reading introductions to GR and QM from a wide variety of different books — at least until those topics become part of the standard high-school curriculum.

    I agree with this completely. I have not read your book, but I do read a lot of popular science books. If you wrote for people like nojesusnopeas (people with a math-y background/understanding) you would have a much smaller audience. I like the idea of a primer before getting into the deeper stuff. As another commenter already mentioned, even though I’ve read intros to GR and QM (or whatever else) several times, I always learn something from the different perspective or even the different writing style(s). And sometimes, I just need to be reminded – as I’m not busting out equations on a chalkboard* every day for a living, I sometimes forget. Such is the life of an interested layman and its we, too, that buy and read pop-sci books.

    I am assuming here that an aficionado is someone with a science/engineering/math background but not a physics degree. There are a lot of us out there that enjoy this stuff, but don’t have any relevant skill-set. I imagine there are more of us than there are aficionados and experts combined. Sounds like you are taking the correct approach. Now I just have to check out your book. (it’s now on the list)

    *you guys still use chalkboards, amirite?

  • Lab Lemming

    Is this really a problem?
    The reviewer above posits it as a theoretical problem.
    Are there any examples of mathematically bereft people having conceptual problems with this particular text?

  • Charlie

    I’m sure you write peer-reviewed reviews for your peers. But as a practicing scientist in a non-physics field, I thought your book was pitched just right. And I don’t think you should assume that we are all big consumers of popular science books (even if most are, do you want to restrict yourself to that audience?). The QM analogies seemed to be novel to me.

  • caoimh

    As an ‘aficionado’ myself, I enjoy the various explanations of QM/GR that different authors provide. It’s akin to hearing a band cover a song by another artist. The basics are the same but the small differences are what make each one special.

  • Jim Harrison

    Point of information: has anybody done surveys to figure out just who these afictionadoes are? I’ve assumed that a lot of the folks who read popular science books are actually scientists or engineers interested in areas outside their fields or people like me who aren’t scientists but work in the science/technology industry.

  • byby

    I absolutely agree that quantum mechanics and special relativity should be part of the high school curriculum. Given that all gadgets and accomplishments in the last 50 years are direct result of these mysterious theories there is no reason why their ideas should not be introduced and investigated and even challenged at the high school level. The ideas are fairly straight-forward and the mathematics is not a killer(after all they are introduced in freshman college classes). The longer the ideas are absorbed and worked with, the more intriguing they become and the more intelligent the quest from investigation can be expected to be. Folks like me who were introduced to these ideas and were told at the opening lecture that QM is extremely hard and I may as well drop the course now, were terrified with respect and fear. This is counter-productive. At the very least we need to help young scientist build historical understanding and intuition for the phenomenon that are being studied and described with the tools and ideas of these theories. There is in general a prevailing fear factor cloud surrounding science and if folks stop scaring kids, even smart kids and smart schools, educated folks will eventually prevail in this country. And this is what we need. The Greeks didn’t educate their kids for the fun of it. They wanted folks who could make decisions and argue their positions. Instead we teach our children to be afraid of knowledge and to be uncertain about their opinions and to believe that knowledge is delivered through a simulation. 100% on with you the ‘modern’ physics in the high school curriculum. (remember kids learn calc early and early on, and why not, once you know a bit of trig and the concepts of area and volume you are set-there is no reason to delay and twist the inevitable and after all the useful). It’s ridiculous to have kids finishing high school who know stuff from 100 years ago and no working knowledge of the advancement from the last 100 years(or at least bare; I think biology has made some advances in that direction, at least conceptually, but there is work there too). As to your book, I could not read it. You lectures cover more or less conceptually the content and verbal lecture is way better to listen to. Further, you are a decent lecturer. Had no idea you were on one of those Nova shows, quite surprising but recognized your diction from two rooms over.Funny indeed.

  • Sleeth

    All great minds who strive to put their thoughts into book form should consider leaving two legacies: one version for the general population so they too might glimpse into the heights that the human mind can achieve, even if it pushes that audience with challenging concepts; and another version for the aficionados, and those who want to be aficionados, pushing the author and this audience to the limits of their abilities, so that greater and greater heights in human understanding can be achieved.

  • James Sweet

    Damn, I would have put more time into saying something smarter and more worthwhile if I’d known my little pseudo-review was going to get this kind of visibility! I’m not quite even 2/3 of the way through, so I can’t even rightly call it a “review”… it was just something I noticed.

    I don’t at all disagree with this comment from Andy:

    Speaking as one of the ‘aficionados’ who has read everything by Brian Greene and others (though not Lisa Randall – I’ll have to look for her) I don’t get tired of the GR and QM introductions. It is difficult enough to grasp that I always seem to gain a little better understanding of it by reading yet another perspective. I’ve read your book, and I think I was able to ‘grok’ about a third of the new stuff.

    Indeed, as I mentioned in my “psuedo-review”, I actually very much appreciated the rehash of GR and QM, because although they are familiar concepts, I can’t exactly call it “old hack”.

    Overall I think you did a wonderful job at this very difficult balancing act. The blog post was sort of just a random thought I had a little while after reading the explanation of how logarithms work. While having the math-y thinking skills to understand some of the points about entropy is a total separate skill from knowing what a logarithm is, or what scientific notation is, I imagine the subset of people who have the former but not the latter must be rather small.

    Nevertheless, it is, as you point out, a very challenging task to balance audiences, and overall I think you did a great job. One thing I noticed — and this was after I wrote the psuedo-review in question, by the way — was that From Eternity to Here generally does an excellent job at drawing together enough context in a sufficiently organized manner that an astute reader is entirely prepared to make the next logical leap before you actually spring it on them. The particular example I am thinking of is your treatment of what you call the Boltzmann-Lucretius scenario. For literally pages before you finally dismantle it, I was practically shouting at the book: “But the most parsimonious cosmology in that case would be Last Thursdayism! And that’s no explanation at all!” This was not a thought that had ever occurred to me before, nor anything remotely like it, but the book does such a fine job at laying out the context in a logical way that I was already seeing some objections to such a scenario, something I most certainly could not have accomplished a few days ago.

    That pedagogical approach — where the student is given the tools to see the answer at the instant before you give it to her, rather than having to wait to be told — is IMO the most satisfying, and probably the most effective.

    I more or less stand by my blog post, but rest assured, I think this is a great book, and I realize the problem I am nitpicking about is a very challenging one for popular science writers — even more so when the problem being confronted is that nature of time. (I had to abandon Julian Barbour’s The End of Time partway through, because while I grokked many of the early sections, there came a point where I just wasn’t following it anymore… very difficult topic!)

  • James Sweet

    For context, I can give you a general idea of where I am as an “aficianado” of QM: I read this post, and…

    * I very much understand the problem to be solved. I am also partial to many-worlds, and was even before beginning From Eternity to Here (I am lifting from Wikipedia when I say it seems to me that wavefunction collapse absolutely must be “just an epiphenomenon of…quantum decoherence”), and in my reading on the subject I understand — though I don’t really have the tools to think about the problem myself — that deriving the Born probability is a problem for MWI. To be honest, I don’t fully grasp why it is not an equally bad problem for Copenhagen and other QM interpretations… but since MWI is the only interpretation that I’ve really been able to grasp in a way that makes sense to me (well, I have a soft spot for instrumentalism, if you can call that an “interpretation”) I guess it’s no surprise that I don’t understand how Born probabilities relate to other interpretations.

    * I mostly followed the post itself, but not really in a deep meaningful way. I kinda followed the math, but there are some notations in there which I am very fuzzy on (I’ve never actually done any QM calculations myself, only seen them done), and I didn’t really quite see where the insight was.

    * I didn’t follow the discussion in the comments at all. Way above my head.

    So there’s some context on the degree of “aficionado” that I may or may not be. FWIW :)

  • Andy

    As a follow up, I am a lawyer with no science background beyond the required science-for-liberal-arts majors in college, so perhaps I don’t even make the cut as an aficionado. I probably read one or two science books a year, plus a few blogs such as this one.

  • James Goetz

    Hey Sean, I ordered your book on Sunday, incidentally the same do you wrote this blog post. I previously read popular physics by Hawking and Penrose and several academic articles with concepts that I could understand regardless that most of the equations flew over my head. And I’m still at the point where I will appreciate a clear introduction to GR and QM. I suppose that I’ll agree with everything you write about that, but disagreement between us might involve the ultimate origin of space with vacuum energy. In any case, I look forward to learning a lot : -)

  • Todd

    I loved Eternity to Here, and in terms of level approach, my only observation is that I found your explanations through analogy may not have always made the concepts more accessible: for example, as you developed the analogy around where dogs are or aren’t it seemed complex until I realized, “Oh this is wave/particle duality”, which may have been simpler. A very minor comment, overall I felt thrilled with your willingness to build as deep and fast into brain-bendingness as you did.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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