Popular Science Book

The Popular Science Book: A New Genre between Literature and Science in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century

Safia Azzouni

In Europe, popular science books emerged during the second half of the nineteenth century. They were not only written by scientists who wanted to make their work accessible to a broad public, but also by literary authors. Accordingly the question arises as to what extent the genesis of the popular science book is linked to the literary movements of the time, and whether or not this hybrid between literature and science can be considered as a new genre.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the interest that writers took in scientific experimentation and innovation constantly increased. The French critic Hippolyte Taine established a positivist literary theory by naming “la race, le milieu et le moment” as determinants of human life and artistic production in his “Introduction à l’Histoire de la Littérature Anglaise” (1863/64). His reference to Darwinism is obvious. Emile Zola modelled his theory of the “Roman Expérimental” (1880) upon Claude Bernard’s "Médecine Expérimentale," and he illustrated the laws of heredity in his novel series "Les Rougon-Macquart."

This French naturalistic movement soon influenced German literary circles. Wilhelm Bölsche proclaimed “Darwin in der Poesie” in his manifesto “Die naturwissenschaftlichen Grundlagen der Poesie” (1887). The scientification of German aesthetic theory reached its peak when the poet Arno Holz made up the quasi-mathematical formula “Kunst = Natur – x” in his “Die Kunst – ihr Wesen und ihre Gesetze” (1891/92).

Literary naturalism reinforced the claim of truth and objectivity already pronounced by realistic writers like Honoré de Balzac and Theodor Fontane. Nevertheless, by following their predilection for depicting alcoholism and mental disease, naturalistic writers created an amalgam of knowledge rather than a literary equivalent to the increasing specialisation of natural science. The period of naturalism was brief. Some authors, like Joris-Karl Huysmans and Gerhart Hauptmann, turned to Symbolist writing, which searched for subjective truth.

In the meantime, various means of popularizing natural science developed in Germany and France due to political and educational views. Several writers engaged in this enterprise. In the beginning, this research project explored four authors whose writings can be partly considered as modern popular science books:

The former chemist and then writer of popular novels Julius Stinde published his “Aus der geheimen Werkstatt der Natur!” in 1880. As a friend of Theodor Fontane, he was sympathetic to the literary realistic movement.

The theorist of naturalism mentioned above Wilhelm Bölsche, was inspired by Ernst Haeckel and gave up his unsuccessful novels in favour of writings like “Das Liebesleben in der Natur” (1898–1903), which were bestsellers until the 1930s.

The symbolist dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911, and his book “La Vie des Abeilles” (1901) was even recommended by the zoologist Karl von Frisch.

The former naturalist writer Johannes Schlaf, who co-authored the well-known novella “Papa Hamlet” (1889) with Arno Holz, is a borderline case in the context of this project. After 1900 he regarded himself as being a scientist and wanted to reestablish the geocentric system.

The project also explored the role that the popular science book played in the transfer of knowledge between poets and scientists.