In the early 1960s, Robert Jastrow, then a young, adjunct professor of astronomy at Columbia University set out to write his first book—an examination of space science that, as he foresaw it, would stimulate the minds of his academic colleagues but, at the same time, be comprehensible to the general public.

His motives were altruistic, he says now. His natural passion for teaching and writing was fired by the strong conviction that even the most esoteric scientific concepts can be—and often should be—conveyed in a lively, gripping style to a mass audience.

He didn’t know and didn’t very much care, Jastrow recalls, whether his work would earn him a nickel. He says he wrote his first book, Red Giants and White Dwarfs, “for the love of it.”

On the other hand, potential financial gain was clear to Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist James Watson when, also in the 1960s, he...

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