Top 10 science and technology writers

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Top 10 science and technology writers

From ALbert Einstein to Robert X. Cringley, these are the famous people who make progress understandable.

A couple of weeks ago a stalwart of the IT writing business died. It got me thinking about the craft of writing and, after much gestation, we decided to come up with a list of the top writers who had explained and expanded our knowledge of science and technology, from a factual basis.

In fact, you could argue that it is science fiction writers who do most to popularise and educate about science, even if almost every science fiction film does the opposite. We will be doing a Top 10 of those writers next week (please put suggestions in the Comments section) but for now let's look at the science and technology writers that that deal in the world as we know it.

It was a tough list to come up with, and Shaun surprised me by suggesting both the number one choice and backing it up with an argument good enough to dislodge me in full sceptic mode. Some of the writers on the list are dead, others still writing, but all are exemplars of their craft.

While this list does contain more than a few brilliant scientific minds, we wanted to focus on people who write well about the subject and explain complex issues to the rest of us in an understandable and entertaining way as well. Let us know if you think anyone's been missed out.

Honourable Mention: Randall Munroe

Iain Thomson: Shaun and I ummed and arred about this choice. Sure, he's a brilliant comic artist but a writer?

While Munroe's XKCD strip is the unofficial court jester of the internet I believe there's a strong case for his inclusion in the list. Some of his work could easily be classed as great writing, and I'm thinking of the Spirit piece he did recently in particular.

Shaun and I both love his work and our adoption of our regular haunt lunch haunt Morty's is in part down to the front of house manager's habit of pushing his message too. Scratch most geeks and you'll find a deep fondness for XKCD and he's obviously hit a chord, being invited to address the Google lecture circuit and using the fame to help the underprivileged.

Writers don't always need to be verbose in order to get their point across. Munroe does more elegant skewering in a few sentences than most writers manage in a thousand words of prose and his arguments are impeccably backed up by science. As he puts it on a best selling tshirt (one overwhelmingly bought by women) - “Science, it works bitches!” with a graph showing data from the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) which confirmed theoretical data on the Big Bang.

Shaun Nichols: Iain, you neglected to mention Munroe's significant contribution to the technology field. You see, aside from crafting stick figure comics that computer geeks and math majors, Munroe has also introduced a novel concept into the software development world.

It's called the Ballmer Peak. Munroe suggests that in general alcohol consumption reduces one's ability to write effective computer code. At a certain point, however, that changes. Once the body hits a specific blood alcohol level, one's ability to program reaches nearly mythical levels.

That blood alcohol percentage? You guessed it .1337 per cent. Just don't go over that level and keep drinking, Munroe says that's how Microsoft ended up with Windows ME

Honourable Mention: Dan Lyons

Shaun Nichols: Both of our honourable mentions make the list not for their scientific chops, but for their skills at satire. To parody a subject, a person has to posses not only a sharp whit, but an excellent understanding of the target. Dan Lyons does that better than just about anyone else when he assumes the role of "Fake Steve Jobs."

Lyons set the internet abuzz in 2006 when he assumed the role of Apple's iconic founder and chief executive. First blogging anonymously, Fake Steve was able to aptly skewer Apple's paranoid corporate culture along with those of Microsoft, Sun, Google and much of the rest of Silicon Valley. Shortly after that Lyons, then an editor Forbes magazine, was outed. He released the book " Options" and is now working to develop a sitcom based in part on the Fake Steve persona.

But Lyons also has a soft spot for the company he so ruthlessly spoofs. Lyons is a self-professed Mac fan and when Jobs took a leave of absence for health reasons and the Fake Steve Jobs blog was at the peak of its success, Lyons put the project on hiatus out of respect for the ailing Apple chief.

Iain Thomson: I'm ashamed to say I was a late arrival to the Fake Steve Jobs blog but it can be very, very funny at times.

Shaun gleefully IMs me with each new bon mot and it's clear Lyons is a master satirist. Sure, Jobs doesn't think that way but it's a comment on how influential, and mercurial Jobs is that you can almost hear him say the words. It's the sign of a really fine bit of work that's built on a good knowledge of the topic and of the issues of the IT world.

There's nothing new to this kind of writing, it's been around for years and readers in the UK will probably be familiar with Private Eye's various skewering of British leaders with such gems as 'The secret diary of John Major (Aged 47 3/4)' and Tony Blair's St Albion Parish News.

10. John C Dvorak

Shaun Nichols: He gets a lot of heat for his curmudgeonly writing style and errant predictions, but the fact is that John C Dvorak has been covering this business since the internet was an obscure university project.

In his time, Dvorak has seen and done more than just about any other business writer in Silicon Valley. While he may not have garnered as many friends as less abrasive counterparts like Walt Mossberg and David Pogue, one absolutely has to respect his knowledge and experience.

He may not get any exclusives from Apple, because he doesn't play Apple PR games, and his brash predictions sometimes flame out. But if you want a good overview of the business and an experienced opinion on where it's heading you can't go wrong with John Dvorak.

Iain Thomson: I have a confession to make, John Dvorak could owed a rather hefty sum of money and that's one of the reasons I wanted him on the list.

Dvorak's journalism is intelligent, well thought out and, as Shaun has pointed out, sometimes plain wrong. But the latter is because he's putting his opinions, based on the best available evidence, out there for all to see. And sometimes people make mistakes, it's as old as man. Admittedly predicting that there was no public demand for the mouse was a bit of a stinker but look back on your own pronouncements. I still cringe at advising someone not to bother investing in Google because another search engine would be along soon.

Anyway, about that money. At PC Magazine UK we used to run Dvorak's column on the back page and month after month his copy would appear but no invoices. My understanding is there was a quick discussion and it was decided that he was either too busy doing other stuff or just not that bothered about it. He'd have a job getting his money back this late in the day but we all enjoyed the columns.

9. Robert X. Cringely

Iain Thomson: When I was training up a young reporter one of the books I recommended (in fact lent him my copy) was Bob Cringely's 'Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date'.

Cringely, current penname of Mark Stephens, has been chronicling the history of Silicon Valley since the mid 1980s and combines a strong factual base with a love of gossip and amateur psychoanalysis. Since he knows many of his subjects personally then you get lots of juicy details thrown in about some of the landmarks of computing history. His first book looks a bit dated these days but it's still worth a read.

Reading about how Bill Gates and Steve Jobs used to go out on double dates with girlfriends together or the mildly criminal past of some of the bigwigs of the industry today won't help you install your next server or debug the code to run on it, but it adds texture and colour to an otherwise rather dull canvas. Cringely understands how programmers and engineers think and has a respectful relationship with both subgroups and understanding mindsets can make for a much smoother relationship with the IT department.

Shaun Nichols: Aside from the open bars, my favourite thing about press meet-up events is sitting down with the older reporters and hearing their stories of the earlier years of the technology business.

Having entered the industry as the Web 2.0 bubble was nearing its peak, I missed out on a lot of history and it's always interesting to hear about the days when those billionaire corporate kingpins were awkward college kids trying to make enough money for a case of ramen noodles or setting up multi-billion dollar enterprises with an idea, three cases of Mountain Dew and a credit account at the local food delivery outlet.

In addition to a wealth of knowledge of the history of the industry, Cringely also has the ability to see through the PR and marketing smokescreen and paint the picture of Silicon Valley as it is. Not always easy to do in the heavily managed show that the industry has become.

8. Isaac Asimov

Shaun Nichols: When constructing the list we made an effort not to include science fiction writers, as we wanted to stick with people that wrote about the actual industry. Asimov is an exception as he is sometimes better known for fiction instead of fact.

While best known for his science fiction books, Isaac Asimov covered a wide range of fields. In fact, it is said that he has published works which appear in all but one of the ten categories in the Dewey Decimal system (kids: have your parents explain what that is.)

Some of Asimov's most important writings were in the field of popular science works in which he was tasked with explaining complex technologies to the general public, and young people in particular during the first decades of the Cold War.

At a time when the USSR and Nato were engaging in a furious competition of scientific discovery, Asimov's efforts to explain and inspire people to pursue the fields of science and technology cannot be overstated.

Iain Thomson: Arthur C. Clarke used to say that he and Asimov had come to a gentleman's agreement over this, the so-called "Asimov-Clarke Treaty of Park Avenue." Asimov should allow his publisher's blurb to read 'World's most famous science writer' if he could claim the science fiction title. In keeping with that we've followed the same rules.

Asimov has nearly five hundred books to his credit, and the majority are explanations of science. It used to be joked that with every round of Nobel Prize awards Asimov would have to write another book to update his canon but his output was extraordinary. 'Asimov's New Guide to Science' should be on every school curriculum and his examination of the bible, as well as his many books on chemistry and history are also well worth a read.

It was Asimov's science fiction that gave us his famed three rules of robotics:A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, a robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law and that a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. As it turns out there were completely ignored by the software developers but it was a lovely idea.

7. Guy Kewney

Iain Thomson: If it was my personal list Guy would be in the top two of the list. As a friend and mentor he was one of the most influential forces on my writing and that of the UK press.

Guy was one of the first people to recognise that the job of explaining technology to people was nearly as important as building the stuff in the first place. Amazing technology achievement is only useful to most people if you can explain how to use it. With such an ethos Guy and others made computers understandable to vast swathes of people via TV and the printed word.

While journalists like Mike McGee were the cudgel that beat the IT industry into submission Guy was the rapier, killing stupid ideas with a well-timed question. When Intel wanted a personal ID number on every chip his was the first hand in the air pointing out the absurdity of the situation. Cases such as this were, and are, being fought out for the benefit of all in the computing press and it's people like Guy that made that both possible and effective.

Shaun Nichols: Unfortunately I was never able to meet Mr. Kewney, and only learnt of his work when Iain told me. But he inspired us to write this list, so that should indicate the level of respect and reverence Guy Kewney inspires around our office.

One of the defining features of the UK tech press is their straightforward, occasionally confrontational approach. PR executives like to complain of British reporters ringing up huge bar tabs on the company's dime one night and then tearing the same company to shreds the next day at the press conference.

In reality, this is how technology journalism should be (the second part, at least.) It's the duty of the press to keep companies honest, and sometimes I think we chicken out a bit for fear of upsetting a company and losing access. Guy Kewney had no such reservations and the industry as a whole is better off for it.

6. Bruce Schneier

Shaun Nichols: While he's not so known in the larger industry, Bruce Schneier is one of the most respected and revered people in the computer security business. At conferences such as RSA he always seems to be booked for the main stage and we always try to book a few minutes for an interview.

This is because Schneier is not only a respected authority on the antivirus, network security and encryption fields, but he also has a knack for breaking things down in common language. In an industry that has nearly crafted its own language from a jumble of acronyms and buzz words, Schneier's ability to clearly explain things is invaluable.

That's not to say the man can't hold his own amongst the techies. Schneier has contributed to numerous encryption algorithms and research efforts, as well as authoring several books which are required reading for anyone looking to enter the business.

Iain Thomson: From a pure technology standpoint Schneier has been an important figure in the cryptography world for many years and has written books on the topic that are the standard texts today.

But for a less technical audience Schneier's later work on security and risk is far more accessible, and probably of direct use by a larger number of people. Schneier looks at how we define risk and learn to live with it. He's also an avid identifier of security theatre - meaningless security measures that reassure but are pointless or even likely to make us less secure. one example is airport screening. The majority of this is useless and in fact opens travellers to more risk, since a queue before security is a very tempting target to a terrorist.

He has been similarly dismissive of the threat of terrorists targeting the internet. "The purpose of terrorism is to terrorise, and if my email goes down I'm annoyed, not terrified," he said at one CeBIT press conference as I recall. It's no-nonsense attitudes like this that a security industry still all too prone to spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt that make him worth listening to and reading.

5. Albert Einstein

Iain Thomson: As we get closer to the top of the list we're coming into some of the world famous names and you don't get more famous these days than Einstein.

As it turns out Einstein was an early victim of technology. His father ran a factory producing electrical devices that worked on direct current but was forced to close it after alternating current became the predominant form of power transmission, due to its ability to travel more efficiently over long distances.

Einstein's writing blossomed in his so called Annus Mirabilis, 1905. In that year he wrote four key papers on photoelectric effects, Brownian motion, special relativity, and the equivalence of matter and energy. One of those papers won him the Noble Prize and all have been key to our understanding of modern physics. As writers go that's something of a winning streak and to celebrate the 100th anniversary the United Nations declared 2005 World Science Year.

However, science wasn't all Einstein wrote about. He published many works on socialism and atheism that are well worth a read, and of course there was The Letter, the one signed by Einstein that kicked off the Manhattan Project. In later years Einstein said that he sometimes regretted sending the letter, but that the threat of the Nazis inventing atomic weaponry was just too great. That two page document is possibly one of the most influential pieces of paper in recent human history.

Shaun Nichols: While Einstein's grasp of physics and mathematics allowed him to make phenomenal breakthroughs in the scientific world, his ability to communicate them helped to alter the course of human history.

Few people on earth can grasp the actual substance of Einstein's theories, but nearly everyone can understand their general impact, and that's largely because the man himself did such an excellent job of breaking them down and explaining them in simple terms.

As Iain touched on, Einstein and Leo Szilard's letter to President Franklin D Roosevelt helped to underscore the importance of atomic research and the development of the atom bomb. Many suggest that an A-bomb would have been developed even if Einstein hadn't written the letter, but there's no doubting that it helped to kick-start the Manhattan Project.

4. Charles Darwin

Shaun Nichols: Obviously Darwin needs no introduction, but I'll make an attempt anyway. His 1859 Origin of Species is considered to be the most important and influential book since the Bible.

On that note, it's also one of the most controversial works of the millennium due to its introduction of the theory of evolution. Since its publication Origin of Species has been the target of criticism and smear campaigns, something that bothered the man himself, a former clergyman who bristled at the notion that evolution and a belief in God were mutually exclusive.

It's safe to say that without Darwin's work the fields of biology, zoology and countless other scientific fields wouldn't exist as we know it.

Iain Thomson: As a journalist with an ambivalent attitude to deadlines I really like Darwin.

Darwin originally trained to be a priest but found nature far more fascinating. His voyage on the Beagle was a masterpiece of accidents, but left us with a treatise, 'On the origins' that fundamental changed not only the discipline of biology but also how we understand the way organisms, societies and ideas grow and change. Based on his journeys Darwin toyed with the idea that, rather than the prevailing wisdom's view that everything on the planet was created immutable by a god, instead life was a constantly changing ecosystem where species adapted to suit current circumstances.

He sat on this world-changing idea for almost 20 years, which makes our copy deadlines look vaguely ridiculous, before being spurred into action after another naturalist contacted him, having had the same idea. that said, Origin is a really tough read and open in misinterpretation. Remember that someone trots out the survival of the fittest line, and tell them to re-read it.

3. Isaac Newton

Iain Thomson: Most great achievements are built on the backs of others, and Newton was no different.

Newton was possessed with both a talent for physics and the ability to actually get concepts down in cogent form so that other people could understand them. While hiding out from the Black Death he took existing theories and either abandoned them or extended them beyond what had originally been envisaged.

Writing did however cause him some grief over, of all things, calculus. Newton and German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz got into a row about who invented calculus first. A lot of the disputes came down to times of publication, and the debate is still a popular one whenever calculus specialists are gathered together and a bit taken with drink. Science, then as now, is dominated by the need to publish first.

Newton's discoveries in optics, physics and motion were dominant for centuries and it was in a large part down to his being able to write his concepts down clearly that he is so well-known today. For his accomplishments he became the first British scientist to be knighted. Who knows what else he could have achieved if he hadn't wasted so much time on alchemy.

Shaun Nichols: I'd be interested in seeing what one of those drunken calculus fights looks like. Not exactly the mods and rockers, I imagine.

Newton coined the term "standing on the shoulders of giants" to describe the advances in physics he made. I don't think he'd ever imagine that in time he would become the biggest of all the giants in the field.

Listing off the various fields that benefited from Newton's work would take ages, but it's a safe bet that astronomy, aeronautics, computer science and physics are more or less founded on Newton's works.

That people are still making discoveries based on Newton's theories more than 280 years after his death should tell you all you need to know about the man's genius and his ability to convey that genius to others.

2. Richard Dawkins

Shaun Nichols: Just about the only person that irks the modern conservative Christian more than Charles Darwin is Richard Dawkins, and with good reason. Dawson's works in genetics have been hugely beneficial to science, while his biting criticisms of creationism have sent fundamentalist heads spinning faster than a Black Sabbath "Greatest Hits" album.

Dawkins also unwittingly played a key role in the development of internet culture. In his 1976 work "The Selfish Gene," Dawkins described shared cultural phenomena and practices with the term "meme."

Decades later, when searching for a term to describe the collection of jokes which spread across the web, the term "internet meme" was introduced. I guess it does sound better than "crappy joke that irritating people re-hash over and over again."

Iain Thomson: Richard Dawkin's early work is everything good science writing should be; elegant, succinct and utterly persuasive. He's done a massive amount to make evolution understandable

'The Selfish gene', 'The Blind Watchmaker' and 'Climbing Mount Improbable' are masterpieces of their genre and have done much to increase the public understanding of science and evidential processes. However, it is his writing on science and religion that have gained him notoriety among some sections of the population in more recent years.

'The God Delusion' was a multimillion copy bestseller and has earned him both praise and condemnation for his militant atheism. As a non-believer myself I can't help feeling he crosses a line into fundamental atheism at times; no-one likes to be called a fool and Dawkins can be very stupid with his cleverness at times.

1. Stephen Hawking

Iain Thomson: Hawking really wasn't my first choice to be honest. I mean, who's actually finished 'A Brief History of Time' and actually felt they understood it.

I asked this of Shaun and he admitted that he'd certainly started it. I've finished it, and read the pass notes and simple version and I still don't feel I've understood it all. So why then the great writer status?

Well, I don't think you can blame him for the subject matter being incredibly difficult to understand. He's dealing in concepts that are so massive, and require so many internal data points, that there's probably only a few thousand people in the world who can properly grasp everything that he talks about. But he inspired millions to give it a go and there's already a generation of young scientist inspired by his writing making guesses of their own.

Hawking's achievements are all the more remarkable because of his disability. Unable to speak normally since a tracheotomy in 1985 Hawking has instead relied on computer technology to get his message across and his famous synthetic voice has become one of the most famous on the planet and there aren't any other physicists I can think of that have had a star turn on the Simpsons.

Shaun Nichols: Apparently I'm not the only one who digs The Hawk. The book was a best seller for 237 straight weeks. Granted, more than a few of those copies were bought to place on a book shelf and make the owner look smart, but I digress.

Stephen Hawking is brilliant at communicating his ideas with the written word, partially by necessity. ALS has left him unable to speak for a large portion of his life. A Brief History of Time may not be the easiest read, but seeing as it is describing advanced astrophysics and cutting-edge theory, that Hawking could make it even remotely comprehensible is a testament to his writing style.

And the man did not stop there. He has written a number of other books, as well as an update to "Brief History of Time." Most recently, he launched a new program for the Discovery channel mixing both his explanations of physics and his own thoughts and opinions on the universe. We hope he'll be doing this for a long time to come.

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