Image of open paper back books laying on the ground.

Pulp Science

Melinda Gormley
Jun 11, 2016

We are currently living through an era of social media and online publications in which scientists, engineers, and other experts have found a vehicle for presenting their research and opinions. The technology may be new, but the circumstances are not. A parallel exists.

In the 1940s and 1950s a new medium – the paperback book – conveyed cutting-edge topics, helping to make novel scientific ideas mainstream. I refer to these paperbacks as Pulp Science. They made scientific knowledge available to the general public in a small, cheap package. The sciences became more democratic with the growth of paperback publishing. More people had access to the sciences because more books were available in more locations at an affordable rate.

Pulp science was a vehicle for informal and formal science learning on a range of subjects including the universe, relativity, mathematics, nuclear weapons, the environment, evolution, and human races. In addition to explaining technical information, some authors proffered value-laden messages about science and society. Some were practicing scientists and others were not. Many familiar names of well-known and highly accomplished scientists grace the covers including Rachel Carson, Theodosius Dobzhansky, George Gamow, Fred Hoyle, Julian Huxley, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead.  

What motivated renowned scientists to write books for the masses? This is an oft-asked question to which no one clear answer exists. Each author would need to be examined individually. Some explanations are to earn money, show a commitment to public engagement, advance informal learning, react against totalitarianism, and support democratic values.

Another question to ask is: To what extent were these scientists’ reputations and acceptance of their scientific ideas a result of publishing mass-marketed books? The scientific contributions of pulp science authors stand on their own within the scientific community. Geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900–1975) is considered one of the most influential biological scientists of the twentieth century for his work connecting genetic variation to evolutionary change. Anthropologists Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) and Margaret Mead (1901-1978) combatted racism and racial hierarchies by supporting cultural relativism. Physicist and cosmologist George Gamow (1904-1968) proposed the big bang theory to explain the origin of the universe. These ideas, which are commonplace today, undoubtedly gained broad acceptance because they were widely circulated in paperback books in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

 

* Melinda Gormley, “Pulp Science: Education and Communication in The Paperback Book Revolution,” Endeavour 40 (2016): 24-37. DOI: 10.1016/j.endeavour.2016.01.002.\

Interior photo was taken by Melinda Gormley. 
Lead Photo Credit: Patrick Tomasso / Unsplash.com 

Melinda Gormley

Melinda Gormley is Research Development Officer of the Francisco J. Ayala School of Biological Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. She has a PhD in history of science and her work has focused on the role of scientists in public policy and life sciences in 20th century America. She was a 2015-2016 AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow with the Environmental Protection Agency working in the Office of the Science Advisor and contributing to the Scientific Integrity and Human Subjects Research programs. 

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