Judge Richard Fortey Reviews the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Books Prize Shortlist
Professor Richard Fortey – award-winning writer, television presenter, palaeontologist and Royal Society Fellow – is Chair of judges for this year’s Royal Society Insight Investment Science Books Prize. Here he talks through the shortlist, announced today, and the balance between scientific research and the ability to tell a great story. The winner of the Prize will be announced on 19th September 2017.
It is a daunting task to select from over 190 popular science books to find one overall winner for the Royal Society Insight Investment Book Prize. The huge choice is certainly proof that science writing has become a genre of its own rather than a small corner of a broad church labelled “non-fiction”. My job as chair involved an initial cull with the guiding criteria that any book that would progress further should not only tackle a real area of scientific interest, but also display a distinct authorial voice. After all, this is a science writing prize, and the quality of the prose must be an important consideration. The writers themselves come from several backgrounds: some are academics who wish to take their own research and that of their colleagues out of the laboratory to a wider public; others are science journalists or broadcasters who desire to explore ways of taking on bigger issues than "bite size" articles or broadcast media permit. There are attendant risks. The academic may not be able to brush away the conventions of his or her scientific publishing, which impose a kind of distance from the subject. The journalists may too readily employ the habitual linguistic tics of newspaper or television – a true authorial voice is much appreciated.
With my four fellow judges we finally selected a shortlist, while reluctantly discarding several titles along the way.
Beyond Infinity: An Expedition to the Outer Limits of the Mathematical Universe by Eugenia Cheng (Profile Books)
Most people think they know what infinity means, but that is only because they have not thought about it hard enough. Eugenia Cheng takes us step-by-step with inexorable logic to stare infinity in the face, making mathematics seem part-game and part-detective story. Her writing is always clear, and does not shy away from some of the more challenging mental acrobatics that the general reader must be trained to perform. Mathematics is always the greatest challenge for a science writer, and Cheng works hard to make the most difficult concepts accessible to mere mortals.
Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds by Cordelia Fine (Icon Books) A cracking critique of the “Men are from Mars Women are from Venus” hypothesis, Fine takes to pieces much of the science on which "fundamental" gender differences are predicated. Graced with a devastating humour, the author makes a good case that men and women are far more alike than many "evolutionary psychologists" would claim. Feminist? Possibly. Humanist? Certainly. A compellingly good read.
Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith (William Collins) This is a book about a remarkable animal - the octopus. Separated from "intelligent" animals with backbones by hundreds of millions of years of evolution, the octopus family nonetheless has such a highly developed nervous and sensory system that it exhibits purposeful behaviour leading us to wonder whether this animal is in some sense conscious - a completely different kind of "mind" from ours. The writer tells wonderful tales of octopus tricks, from taking a diver on a submarine walk, holding him by the hand, to squirting at electric lights they find irritating in order to fuse them. Because Peter Godfrey-Smith is also a philosopher, he invites the reader to consider what consciousness actually means, and, in an artful way, uses these bizarre but compelling animals as a way of helping us understand ourselves.
In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer's by Joseph Jebelli (John Murray) An up-to-date account of advances in understanding one of the most important health challenges faced by our species: Alzheimer’s disease. Jebelli interweaves moving accounts of case histories with explanations of how the disease itself destroys the brain, its genetics, and why a "magic bullet" to cure it seems so elusive. Jebelli tells the inside story, as a scientist involved with the research, but in an engaging as well as an authoritative way. We will all know somebody with Alzheimer’s - and this book will help us towards compassion and understanding.
To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O'Connell (Granta Books)
A book written with real relish and humour by a natural storyteller. The book examines the strange world of "transhumanism" - the growing numbers of those who relish the prospect of downloading our minds on to computers, or incorporate machines themselves into their bodies, or even freeze their corporeal remains until science promises a reanimation. The tale becomes an intriguing examination of one of the oldest motivations of human culture - the defeat of death itself. Whether the reader is inspired or terrified by the techno-geeks that the author interviews is a matter of fine judgement, but O’Connell handles the issues involved with aplomb.
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong (Bodley Head)
The world of microbes is a strange one to most readers, and Ed Yong seeks to correct the balance. Bacteria, Archaea and other tiny organisms are far more diverse than anyone realised until the dawn of the ‘molecular era’. And far from being malevolent, the ‘micro biome’ is absolutely essential to the healthy functioning of our bodies. They may be recruited to fight disease more readily than they cause it. Yong’s gripping summary of what is at the cutting edge in microbiology is an eye opener to those who still think of all bacteria as something to be exterminated with disinfectant.