How Often Do Books Mention Scientists and Researchers?

Here is a graphic showing the usage of the words “scientists”, “researchers”, “soldiers” in English-language books published in 1900-2008. The graphic was generated using the Google N-gram Viewer which scours all digitized books in the Google database for selected words and assesses the relative word usage frequencies.



(You can click on the chart to see a screen shot or on this link for the N-gram Viewer)

It is depressing that soldiers are mentioned more frequently than scientists or researchers (even when the word frequencies of “scientists” and “researchers” are combined) in English-language books even though the numbers of researchers in the countries which produce most English-language books are comparable or higher than the number of soldiers.

Here are the numbers of researchers (data from the 2010 UNESCO Science report, numbers are reported for the year 2007, PDF) in selected English-language countries and the corresponding numbers of armed forces personnel (data from the World Bank, numbers reported for 2012):

United States: 1.4 million researchers vs. 1.5 million armed forces personnel
United Kingdom: 255,000 researchers vs. 169,000 armed forces personnel
Canada: 139,000 researchers vs. 66,000 armed forces personnel

I find it disturbing that our books – arguably one of our main cultural legacies – give a disproportionately greater space to discussing or describing the military than to our scientific and scholarly endeavors. But I am even more worried about the recent trends. The N-gram Viewer evaluates word usage up until 2008, and “soldiers” has been steadily increasing since the 1990s. The usage of “scientists” and “researchers” has reached a plateau and is now decreasing. I do not want to over-interpret the importance of relative word frequencies as indicators of society’s priorities, but the last two surges of “soldiers” usage occurred during the two World Wars and in 2008, “soldiers” was used as frequently as during the first years of World War II.

It is mind-boggling for us scientists that we have to struggle to get funding for research which has the potential to transform society by providing important new insights into the nature of our universe, life on this planet, our environment and health, whereas the military receives substantially higher amounts of government funding (at least in the USA) for its destructive goals. Perhaps one reason for this discrepancy is that voters hear, see and read much more about wars and soldiers than about science and research. Depictions of heroic soldiers fighting evil make it much easier for voters to go along with allocation of resources to the military. Most of my non-scientist friends can easily name books or movies about soldiers, but they would have a hard time coming up with books and movies about science and scientists. My take-home message from the N-gram Viewer results is that scientists have an obligation to reach out to the public and communicate the importance of science in an understandable manner if they want to avoid the marginalization of science.


8 thoughts on “How Often Do Books Mention Scientists and Researchers?

  1. Lots to contemplate here, mostly about storytelling I think. Is it because science has ostensibly has little or no drama to which nonscientists (the general reading audience) can relate? If so, nonfiction movies such as “Particle Fever” and “The Imitation Game” may be instructive. The latter, interestingly, blurs distinctions and reveals false dichotomies as does a play like “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer.”

    There are two eternal truths about storytelling: (a) develop interesting characters by revealing deep personal significance even if idiosyncratic or quirky, and (b) include bad guys whether it is a mere competitor or a fight against evil. It would be pretty radical to make this part of “science communication” but it might be worth exploring it as a sub-genre. It works in science fiction. Can it work in science nonfiction? What stress would this place on the integrity of science reporting or journalism?

    Personally, I am waiting for a book or movie on the social triangle among the progenitors of modern medical anesthesia in the 19th Century: William Edward Clarke (1819–1898), Horace Wells (1815–1848), and William T. G. Morton (1819–1868). It seems like there is a really interesting story to tell there, rich with human foibles as well as scientific tenacity.


    1. I agree with you. Science is sometimes portrayed without the narrative context. I would not just limit it to “drama”, but story-telling in general. Scientists – just like people of any other profession – have to overcome personal challenges, struggle with moral questions, etc. Communicating these stories would definitely help paint a more realistic picture of science and also make science and scientists more accessible to the non-specialist audience.


  2. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] Morsels For The Mind – 16/01/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

  3. Max

    Non-scientist here. Interesting read, amazing what data you can get from the N-gram viewer. I wonder how Internet searches over the past 10 years compare? Interesting that the war in Vietnam didn’t prompt a spike in books.


    1. Thanks for your comments!There was a little bump in the 1960s. Perhaps the focus of books published in that era was not so much on the soldiers, they may have instead discussed the role of governments and the Cold War.

      I completely agree, Ngram viewer is a great repository for studying word frequencies.


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