Review | Fun Science – Charlie McDonnell

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I’ve finally got around to reading Fun Science by Charlie McDonnell, and after reading it I have some thoughts about both the book itself and its potential value for science communication.

Firstly, some context. Charlie McDonnell is a filmmaker/musician/ vlogger/presenter… and now author. Last month he released Fun Science (the book), inspired by his 2011 YouTube series of the same name. Fun Science (the show) has also returned,and covers topics included in the book. (A playlist of all of the YouTube episodes is below).


Review

The first part of Fun Science (the book) I’ll cover is its design and layout. While I don’t normally think much about the design of physical books, this one is unusual in a way which may polarise opinions. Fun Science is noticeably designed and written for people who read and get their information online. It follows the style advice usually given to people writing online, such as using shorter paragraphs, adding a variety of text styles, leaving white space, and breaking the text up with formatting and images.

The use of coloured pages, block quotes and interspersed fact boxes and doodles means Fun Science doesn’t read like a standard educational or even non-fiction book to me. It feels like an adapted set of blog posts put together following the visual style of magazine articles. A good example of this blog-like nature is the page below – note the amount of variations within how the text is presented on one double-spread.

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I’m just about old enough (or pedantic enough) to wanting my physical books to stay looking like physical books while encouraging online writing to experiment and adapt, so for me the book’s style errs slightly towards being distracting. However, from the perspective of its intended audience, the design makes a lot of sense.

Given that a large proportion of the audience are school-aged, many will currently think of books as school work, as arbitrary work that must be read to complete assignments regardless of personal interest or meaning. The choice to make the book look wildly different to “school books”, and closer to a magazine or blog, will make it more approachable for an audience who may be reluctant readers or used to books belong for school and other media being for leisure. From that perspective, it may be a way to encourage people who learn from others through videos to give books another try.

Fun Science‘s writing reinforces this idea, as the book reads 100% in McDonnell’s voice and sounds exactly as if he was explaining the ideas in a vlog. Again, this may put off older or more new-media-skeptic people, but it makes sense for the intended audience. In terms of tone, the writing is light-hearted and jokey, with many digressions, asides, and sarcastic (fictional) Editor’s notes, plus an abundance of puns. It pokes fun at the amount of the universe we still don’t know anything about, and at the often counter-intuitive ways ideas have been proposed or rejected. My one criticism here is that it may go a little too far with jokes at scientists’ expense, but that one may also be an audience-awareness point.

In terms of scientific content and language, McDonnell tries hard to keep ideas grounded in their value and importance without adding an overload of details. Mostly, this works well. Fun Science provides simple explanations with callbacks to previous topics that both reinforce the connections between topics and their relevance to us. McDonnell also deserves credit for even attempting to explain string theory in one page, let alone doing a good job of it. However, on a few occasions new terms are skimmed through too quickly before their relevance is established, which leaves a few paragraphs feeling disjointed.

Chapter 7 (The Cell) was the first section where I was learning entirely new information from the book, rather than refreshing my memory and learning additional details. So for me this chapter was the strongest test of McDonnell’s ability to communicate the science, and also where I found the small space given to each topic
more limiting than in other chapters. However, this is again understandable given the breadth of science the book intends to cover.

The only other criticism I would make is that while the big-to-small structure usually works well, and helps to keep the book telling an interesting story, it is less effective at the end of the book. For example, the Earth chapter brings up elements way before the Elements chapter, while the Elements chapter references subatomic particles in the chapter before they’re explained.

Looking at Fun Science as a whole, it achieves its aim of providing a brief, clear, and interesting overview of different scientific topics to teens. As a book of science information, it’s effective. But McDonnell has made this book meaningful by going beyond providing facts.

Science Communication

There is some online negativity towards the current craze of “YouTuber books”, and critics arguing that many books by YouTubers are vanity projects, released to add revenue sources rather than out of any pre-existing passion for writing. I haven’t read any other books by YouTubers, so I can’t comment on that opinion. But I will say that the cynical argument definitely does not apply here.

McDonnell proves that Fun Science is not a vanity project in the prologue, which for me is the most meaningful part of the book and the part which makes it more than a science trivia book. The average prologue can be an ego trip where the author talks about why they’re equipped to write that particular book and why you should listen to them. Fun Science is the opposite. McDonnell uses the prologue to explain that he is not a scientist and is not uniquely knowledgeable or special in regards to science;  instead, he is a science fan who is passionate about sharing science and encouraging people to be interested in it. To do this, he discusses how his audience may see science due to the influence of school, and why this school-based definition doesn’t reflect how valuable and important science is.

Finally, he directly says that the aim of Fun Science isn’t for people to be impressed with his knowledge, but for them to be inspired to seek out more science information or science communication. By doing that, the prologue may have just introduced the concept of science communication and science communicators to thousands of people- who knows what the effect of that could be?

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