The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 11, 2002
March 11, 2002
VOL. 31, NO. 25


Making Science Reader-Friendly

Physics, statistics and Einstein go mass-market in new JHU Press books for the general reader

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Want a risky bet? How about that evens would come up on a roulette wheel 26 straight times--the odds of it happening are 1 in 142,857,000. An even worse bet would be that a typewriter-equipped monkey, even one given an infinite amount of time and paper, would spew out Shakespearean prose.

For those who wonder about such likelihoods--and others who question the need for those long "crocodile lines" at Disneyworld--the Johns Hopkins University Press has just the book for you. This spring JHU Press will release What Are the Chances? Voodoo Deaths, Office Gossip and Other Adventures in Probability, a 136-page volume that injects some fun into the bland world of statistics.

The slim, colorfully named book represents a new push by the Press to publish science and math titles geared toward a general audience. In addition to What Are the Chances?, other upcoming mass-market offerings include Einstein's Scrapbook, Adventures in Group Theory, The Physics of Ice Hockey and Random Clocks and Red Hot Batteries. Already in stores is Nucleus: A Trip Into the Heart of Matter, a lavishly illustrated book that seeks to unravel some of the mysteries and misconceptions surrounding nuclear physics.

In total, the Press plans to publish six popular science books per year, releasing three each fall and spring season.

Trevor Lipscombe, editor in chief of JHU Press, says the new science books--all written by 'card-carrying' scientists--meet their mission to inform, educate and entertain.

What characterizes each book is the author's desire to entertain while still to educate. The chapters eschew science speak and blend the necessary terms, theories and numbers with human interest stories, practical applications and historical asides. Random Clocks and Red Hot Batteries, for example, contains various tales of bizarre science experiments, such as the electric worm, the pneumatic drum and Boadicea's Autochariot. Einstein's Scrapbook, on the other hand, is a formula- and equation-free book loaded with handwritten documents and some rare photos drawn from the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The man behind the academic publisher's new focus is JHU Press editor in chief Trevor Lipscombe, who joined the Press in the summer of 2000.

The British-born Lipscombe says the new books both fill a niche in the publishing world and satisfy the Press's mission to educate, inform and entertain. The overarching intent, he says, is to raise the public's awareness of science.

"I think we need to deliver science to a broader audience," Lipscombe says. "I don't think that university presses have done a particularly good job at that in the past. There are hardly any that publish in physics and mathematics. There are 110 university presses, and only about four or five of them actually publish math books."

Lipscombe describes his target audience as high school students, teachers and anyone with a passing interest in science or math.

"We would love to touch the heart and the mind of a bright young high school student, or get people to appreciate what mathematicians do," Lipscombe says. "I also view these books as bedtime reading for scientists. And the analogies and historical asides can be used by any teacher at pretty much any level."

The concepts for many of the popular science titles originated from Lipscombe, who received a doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford University. Before coming to Johns Hopkins, Lipscombe was an editor at Princeton University Press.

To find authors for these types of books, Lipscombe says one has to be proactive. Most of the soon-to-be-released books began with Lipscombe pitching an idea he had in mind to a college professor. Unlike the popular For Dummies line, he says JHU Press wants its books' authors to be "card-carrying" scientists, not journalists or ghost writers.

"The science journalist sometimes gets the science wrong, while the scientist tends not to--though we just might need to help write the text," Lipscombe says. "What we tend to want are accomplished scientists who can talk about what they find captivating about a particular subject."

Lipscombe says the Press fully plans to tap into Hopkins' deep well of scientists as authors for its popular science books.

"Here is a chance for those who want their mum to understand exactly what they do for a living," he quips.

Most of the mass-market books will fall under 250 pages, Lipscombe says. However, word count is not the end-all for the editor.

"What I am hoping for is that if you ignore all the equations, it's still a good, entertaining read," Lipscombe says, "and you can still pick up information even if you don't quite grasp all the material in the book."

For more about Johns Hopkins University Press titles, or to order books, go to