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Is it possible to say which was the first popular science book? I was reading this question Einstein's readings of popular sciences as a kid , and started wondering how far back this kind of distinction between popular science books for wider-audience (not just some political authorities) and science publications for fellow academics (and students) goes. It would have been necessary to have enough people to be able to read and the science needed to be advanced enough for it to be too technical for the layperson.

Wikipedia article on pop-science goes back as far as to the writing of Mary Somerville's On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences. Do we know any earlier pop-science books? Galileo's Systema cosmicum might fit the bill, but it was just Galileo's way of publishing its results in a different way to be understood by his colleagues. Is it recognized as a pop-sci book?

Do we have an established notion on which was the first popular science book?

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    $\begingroup$ Not without specifying more precisely what counts. Genealogy of Popular Science volume tracks evolution of the genre from antiquity to current times. De Rerum Natura was "popular science" of its time, as was Pliny's Naturalis Historia or Sacrobosco's De sphaera mundi. Even some Plato's dialogs may qualify, and works preceding him that do not survive. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    May 13, 2023 at 9:46
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    $\begingroup$ "how far back this kind of distinction between popular science books and true science books" I would argue it goes back 14 hours, when you posted that question. What's a "true science book"? $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    May 13, 2023 at 11:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Stef While it's a fairly fuzzy distinction, there is definitely a distinction between media intended for a wider non-scientific audience (pop-sci) and media intended for fellow scientists (academic journals and such). OP certainly didn't invent that. $\endgroup$ May 14, 2023 at 3:16
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    $\begingroup$ @RadvylfPrograms There is, but I don't think that's what the OP is talking about? They're talking about a distinction between popular science books and "true" science books, not between wide-audience and fellow-expert-audience. Unless "true" means "intended for fellow experts"? but I think that would be quite a stretch of interpretation. Not to mention is would be a bit of a perversion of the very concept of science, to say that "true" science is reserved for the initiated and inaccessible to the rest of the people. $\endgroup$
    – Stef
    May 14, 2023 at 12:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Stef sorry, edited. I hope you did not read too much into it. $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    May 14, 2023 at 13:56

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As noted in @Conifold's comment, identifying the first popular science book is an impossible task. Before the specialization of science that accelerated during the 19th century, there was often little distinction between "science" and "popular science" for the small part of the population that was educated and literate. Books that have been called the "first popular science book" include:

Another interesting example of Enlightenment popular science is Erasmus Darwin's "The Botanic Garden" published in 1791. According to wikipedia:

The intent of The Botanic Garden, one of the first popular science books, is to pique readers' interest in science while educating them at the same time.

The format of this book is unusual for modern readers since it is the form of two long poems: "The Loves of the Plants" and "The Economy of Vegetation". Explaining science in to the educated populace in poetic form actually has a long history, and contributors to the 2018 conference "Genealogy of Popular Science From Ancient Ecphrasis to Virtual Reality" argued that European science popularization goes back to the didactic poetry of Greek and Roman antiquity.

As noted in other answers and comments, another "popular science" genre from antiquity through the 18th Century were handbooks intended to share practical scientific and technical knowledge. As described by Stahl in "Roman science: origins, development, and influence to the later Middle Ages"

Most [ancient Greek and Roman] handbooks were intended for the general reader. Such books were occasionally written by men who had made original contributions to Greek scientific thought; more often the authors themselves had limited competence in handling scientific subjects or were laymen used to presenting any subject in a simplified form.

Without these popular works, much of the scientific knowlege of the era might have been lost. For example, all the original works of the 4th century BCE Greek astronomer Eudoxus have been lost, but his contributions were largely preserved in the didactic poem "Phenomena" written a century later.

This "handbook" tradition continued right through to the invention of the printing press, and later examples include books of secrets such as Giambattista Della Porta's 1558 Magia Naturalis and Isabella Cortese's 1561 "I secreti della signora Isabella Cortese".

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Robert Hooke's 1665 book Micrographia: or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses. With Observations and Inquiries Thereupon predates Somerville by about one-hundred and seventy years. Quoting the wikipedia article:

Published in January 1665, the first major publication of the Royal Society, it became the first scientific best-seller, inspiring a wide public interest in the new science of microscopy. The book originated the biological term cell.

[...] the popularity of the book helped further the society's image and mission of being England's leading scientific organization. Micrographia's illustrations of the miniature world captured the public's imagination in a radically new way; Samuel Pepys called it "the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life."

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In a sense, the writings of the Flemish mathematician and engineer Simon Stevin (1548–1620), could be considered "popular science", insofar as he wrote them in Dutch instead of Latin so that non-scholars would be able to read them, and intended for them to be of practical use to tradesmen of all kinds in their everyday business, e.g.:

  • "Tafelen van Interest" (Tables of interest) from 1582, with present value problems of simple and compound interest and interest tables that had previously been unpublished by bankers.
  • "De Thiende" (The tenth) from 1585, in which he introduced decimals to a European audience (they had been known to Islamic scholars much earlier).

The latter had a dedication "to astrologers, landmeasurers, measurers of tapestry and wine casks, and stereometricians in general, mint-masters and merchants all".

His books were published by Christophe Plantin in Antwerp, and were bestsellers at the time.

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It depends heavily on your definitions. But I think that for any reasonable definition, we cannot estimate it.

For example, De Architectura. It's a book, written for a non-technical audience, and dealing with technical information that predates the science/engineering divide. And it's from about 20 BC. Eventually, in the 15th century or so, it was republished more broadly. But by any reasonable definition, it's a pop-science book.

Is it the earliest? Almost certainly not. You can easily find famous Ancient Greek manuscripts and make the same argument for them. There are almost certainly lost manuscripts from even earlier. And then you look more broadly: I'm ignorant of e.g. most of early Chinese writing, but I would be shocked if there were no sources there.

So: no. I don't think we can reasonably estimate that first appearance. Too much has been lost in too many places.

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  • $\begingroup$ What makes you say that De Architectura was written for non-technical audience? Just because it was written for the "authorities" ? $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    May 14, 2023 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Mauricio It was written for Augustas, no? Also, while he is explaining technical subjects, the explanations are geared towards laymen. $\endgroup$
    – fectin
    May 15, 2023 at 0:27
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Dante's Paradiso gives a good explanation of cosmology as it was understood in the early 14th century (the spheres that move the planets around the Earth). It can be argued that Dante also developed the idea of the Universe as a 3 sphere, anticipating the cosmological ideas of the 20th century.

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