Book Review


In January this year, the US saw the publication of the preview of an impressive review work on the practices and the studies concerning learning science outside schools and universities, i.e. what is referred to as informal education. The document, promoted by the National Science Council of scientific academies (National Academy of Science, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine), is the result of the work by a committee comprising 14 specialists who collected, discussed and then organized hundreds of documents on pedagogical premises, places, practices and pursuits concerning scientific informal education. Nobody doubts that museums, magazines, after-school activities, science festivals and any other science communication offers have a positive impact on the people’s knowledge, attitudes and behaviours. But what do we really know about what actually happens in these experiences? What sense should be given to the word “learning” in these cases? Do the different communication tools or environments have also a different impact? What factors make them more or less effective? These are the main questions the document wants to answer, carefully evaluating the present state of the art.


The climate change issue has become increasingly present in our society in the last decade and central also to communication studies. In the e-book “Communicating Climate Change: Discourses, Mediations and Perceptions”, edited by Anabela Carvalho, various scholars investigate how climate change challenges communication by looking at three main aspects: the discourses of a variety of social actors on climate change; the reconstruction of those discourses in the media; the citizens’ perceptions, understandings and attitudes in relation to climate change.


“Science on the air” is an enjoyable and extremely well researched account of the origins of science programming in north American radio. From 1923 to the mid-50s, LaFollette takes us in a journey through the life and programs of many scientists, journalists and storytellers who chosed radio as a medium for science communication. A journey who allow the reader to visit many success, but also many incomprehension and missed opportunities, mainly by scientific institutions, who often failed to understand the potential of radio as a tool for science communication. It is a fully enjoyable journey, that leave the reader with an appetite to know how the US situation relates to other wonderful experiences around the world in the same years, and how those pioneer experiences influenced today's landscape.


In his latest book “The scientific life. A moral history of a late modern vocation”, the social historian of science Steven Shapin addresses the public image of contemporary scientists, their virtues and vocations. Who are, and how they represent themselves, those scientists who work on the edge between industry and academy, and who are responsible for the radical uncertainty embedded in the contemporary production of scientific knowledge? If “people matter”, as Shapin states, the genealogy he provides should encourage us to dig more deeply in the main stage of the virtues and ethos of scientists: the mass media.


In 2008 two collections were published: the Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology, edited by Massimiano Bucchi and Brian Trench, and Communicating Science in Social Contexts: New models, new practices, edited by Donghong Cheng and five other scholars from China, Canada, Belgium and Australia. These books try to define and draw the boundaries of science communication’s field from both a theoretical and empirical point of view. But do we need to establish it as a distinct research field? For a number of decades, a growing community of scholars and communicators is trying to reply positively to this question, but the need to look outside the disciplinary boundaries, to other academic fields, is still vital.


The educational function of science museums was born with the first naturalistic collections ever, flourished in 16th-century Italy. The pedagogic thought and the educational experimentations carried out in approximately five century of history have allowed the educational mission of museums to acquire many different facets, drawing a task having an increasingly higher and complex social value. Recent publications explore these new meanings of an old role.


Within just a few months, new releases in the world of publishing have seen two books dealing with science and The Simpsons, one published in the US and the other in Italy: last spring, What's science ever done for us? by Paul Halpern (John Wiley & Sons, New York 2007) and, this autumn, La scienza dei Simpson by Marco Malaspina (Sironi Editore, Milano 2007).


Probably among the first to deal with it, nearly sixty years ago, Norbert Wiener, the founding father of cybernetics (The human use of human beings. Cybernetics and Society, Houghton Mifflin Company, London, 1950), prefigured its opportunities, as well as its limitations. Today, it is a quite common belief. We have entered (are entering) a new, great era in the history of human society: the age of information and knowledge.


The digitalization process of historical archives, which has been taking place over the past few years, shows that the study of history of science is undergoing major changes. Easier access to online resources (manuscripts, catalogues of scientific machinery and tools that would otherwise be virtually impossible to consult) has spurred and created the preconditions for the development of new quantitative methodologies in the study of history of science as well as the creation of international research groups.


We live in a period where new media develops at amazing speed: the case of Youtube, becoming in few months one of the most visited website in the world, or the incredibly fast diffusion of audio and video podcasting, or the acquired relevance and authoritativeness of blogs in the dissemination of scientific information, are paradigmatic. Yet, there is little doubt that old media such as traditional television remain a reference for the largest sector of the population. Indeed, all surveys show that when dealing with scientific information, television remains the most relevant medium by a large majority of European (although in eastern Europe, due to a more trustful reputation, radio has also a particularly relevant position, and the internet is gaining favour among younger audiences).


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