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Book interview: Bruce Benamran, ‘How To Speak Science’

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As engineers and technologists we can reasonably claim to know more about science than the layperson - but, says author Bruce Benamran, we could all do with a refresher in the fundamentals from time to time.

The problem with most popular science books is that for an informed minority they don’t go into enough depth, while for a more casual readership they are often bafflingly obscure. It’s in the nature of science communication: people who ‘get it’ will dislike attempts to simplify it for wider consumption, while the people that don’t, well, they just don’t get it. History is littered with popular science books that must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but for any number or reasons will have missed their intended market – the middle ground.

On rare occasions, you get one that is spot on, and in Bruce Benamran’s ‘How to Speak Science’ we have the perfect example of a geeky text that is neither condescending nor highfalutin. It has sufficient genuine scientific content to keep the techies interested, while being fast-paced enough (and at times genuinely funny) to keep the neophyte on board, even if sometimes only clinging on by the tips of their fingers.

All from a book in translation. Benamran is French, and French is his mother tongue. His book has been translated idiomatically into modern American English with a certain amount of gusto. Although it shouldn’t make much difference, it seems to. It’s almost as if the stories of Aristotle and Euclid, Kelvin and Einstein, gain something from being examined by a linguist too.

This is something that is important to the author, who is a former software engineer by profession and amateur physicist by vocation. But perhaps chief among his achievements is his recent full-time career as a YouTuber, broadcasting videos to his million followers on his channel ‘e-penser’.

“It’s one of those things if you are a French speaker,” he says, sensing an injustice. “If you want to go to the internet to find out about science, everything is in English. Which puts up a barrier, especially when the concepts are difficult.”

With a lack of popular science video resources in French, Benamran decided he’d take on the project himself. The more subjects he tackled – why is the sky blue? what’s the difference between temperature and heat? how do you know you’re alive? – the more he realised that “while the internet is great, there was something more permanent in the physical world that could be achieved”.

After a bit of an arm-wrestle with publishers that wanted to dumb down the content, he finally secured a deal and wrote a book of popular science for grown-ups to go along with his videos and, as the franchise grew, a board game, too.

We read it for you

‘How to Speak Science’

Author Bruce Benamran has more than a million subscribers to his French-language popular science YouTube channel ‘e-penser’ (a pun in French, roughly translated as ‘think about it’). His mission is to provide people in general with a deeper understanding of the scientific specifics of the world we live in. Such was the popularity of his vlog that he decided to convert his musings from the digital space to physical existence on your bookshelf. ‘How to Speak Science’ is the result – a humorous and engaging account of everything scientific, from why Aristotle is held in far too much regard these days, to why pirates traditionally wore eye-patches (it’s all to do with protecting the retina from rapid changes of light intensity, apparently). Witty, wise and entertaining, ‘How to Speak Science’ is the perfect present for engineers everywhere.

Benamran describes ‘How to Speak Science’ as a book that deconstructs how science works. “It’s not really about equations. I mean, equations are important if you want to be a scientist, but I’m interested in presenting science in simple words. I don’t need to be able to calculate the movements of Jupiter or Saturn, but I need to know how and why they move.”

Also, he says, it has to be entertaining. He has learned this from bitter experience. “I’ve always been interested in the science concepts in my book. But when I came to try to explain them to my friends it was difficult. When people aren’t into science, they tend to think that it is either boring or something that they can’t understand.”

This resistance is worrying for Benamran, who suggests that there are more people today who think the world is flat than there were in the Middle Ages. “There are people that still think that Apollo 11 didn’t land on the Moon and those who don’t think that climate change is a real thing.”

This widespread ignorance, incubated in the lowest-common-denominator comment posts on the internet, is attributable to “the fact that the way people are taught science isn’t interesting. So they give up thinking about it.” For those lucky enough to have spent their education in the sciences and now work in the field: “there’s plenty of stuff you’ll have forgotten.” As Benamran says, we could all do with a refresher in the basics from time to time.

As technologists and engineers, we can afford to be just a little complacent. After all, we routinely work with high concepts and the latest technology, expressing our ideas in the language of engineering. Surely ‘How to Speak Science’ can’t be aimed at E&T readers?

“Why not?” he replies. “There is a lot of fundamental science in this book that many engineers will have forgotten or will simply be too young to recognise.”

By way of example, Benamran cites the cathode ray tube that was once the main component of television and instrument screens. “These days with our wafer-thin plasma screens it’s hard to believe that only two decades ago the technology meant that the tube could be at least 30cm deep.” In his book Benamran discusses the scientific breakthroughs that led to what is now – in consumer entertainment goods at least – an obsolete technology.

‘The way people are taught science isn’t interesting. So they give up thinking about it.’

Bruce Benamran

Football may well be the most popular sport on the planet, he informs us, but how many of us know that the game isn’t played with a ball at all? Technically, a ‘ball’ is the space enclosed by a sphere, meaning that it would be much more accurate to call the sport ‘footsphere’. In Euclidean geometry the word ‘sphere’ is informally used to denote a ball, while in sport the word ‘ball’ is used to informally denote a sphere.

Before long Benamran is myth-busting Aristotle – “for such a famous guy, he was hands down the worst scientist ever!” – and putting his readers straight on the difference between alchemy and transmutation, before moving on to his impatience with the hierarchy among the sciences that puts, say, theoretical physics above the human sciences.

“Quite obviously, this hierarchy is a morass of prejudice,” he declares. “A science is a science. End of discussion. While it may be possible to distinguish exact sciences (like mathematics) from inexact sciences (like psychology), in no instance should that make one science more or less important than another. A science can be recognised by its method: observations, hypotheses, theoretical models, experiments, validation. Who knows what amazing progress people lost out on because of all this prejudice?”

‘How to Speak Science’ by Bruce Benamran is published by Ebury, £12.99


Taking Kelvin’s temperature

Like Carnot before him, Kelvin was interested in the link between heat and temperature. He was sure that Carnot’s work would lead him to a way to talk about temperature without being trapped into using laws of physics that concerned only gases.

In 1848, he proposed an absolute temperature scale that associated changes in temperature with changes in the heat in bodies. The scale is absolute in the sense that it doesn’t depend on the body being studied, and it isn’t based on a reference body, such as the Celsius scale, which is based on the freezing point of water at 0°C and the boiling point of water at 100°C. Kelvin’s scale assumed a zero value, called “absolute zero,” the temperature at which a body contains absolutely no heat, no energy. This zero is not attainable – if it were, the incorrectly named Heisenberg ‘uncertainty principle’ would be false. Today, the absolute temperature scale is known as the Kelvin scale – and its unit is a Kelvin (K).

When not working on temperature, Kelvin kept himself busy: he built an analogue mechanical calculator and a machine that could predict the tides. He also calculated the age of the Earth. On April 27, 1900, he gave a presentation to the Royal Institute of Great Britain in which he said that we had already seen everything there was to see regarding physics; the only thing left was to make more precise measurements.

He also said that there were two clouds obscuring the development of thermodynamic theory: the inability to prove the existence of luminiferous ether, and the problem of radiation from a black body, also known by its more specific name the ultraviolet catastrophe. The first cloud gave birth to the theory of relativity, and the second cloud yielded quantum mechanics.

Edited extract from ‘How to Speak Science’ by Bruce Benamran, reproduced with permission.

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