25th September 2013 - Lucy Siegle
Journalist Lucy Siegle is one of the judges for this year's Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, the UK's most prestigious award for scientific writing. She shares her experiences of following the narratives of so many scientific discoveries in the process of choosing the shortlist.
Just a fortnight ago I was out and about in London's West End telling huge porky pies about books to anybody who would listen, or at least stop and be on camera. This was a professional engagement in my capacity as a reporter for The One Show (BBC1, weekdays 7pm). I was perfect for the job because I'm sorry to say I frequently attempt to upgrade my knowledge of the cultural canon by pretending in social situations that I've read books or seen films when I haven't. It was a story based on a survey - 62% of us pretend to have read books we haven't.
It worked a treat. I engaged the person in a generic literary conversation, dropped in a reference to a bogus book and in no time at all they were telling me how much they rated the author's writing and had enjoyed her other work. When I confessed that it was made up, the duped would look at me with the big round eyes of an admonished puppy. It wasn't pretty but I was very successful.
Until I entered Foyles, on Charing Cross Road. Once in Foyles, my success rate plummeted. In fact not one customer fell for my mendacious scheme. On camera they had absolutely no qualms about telling me that they had never heard of the author I was touting.
I don't know what any of this proves (except that Foyles customers are so culturally secure they feel no need to impress others) and I understand my penchant for lying about what I have read may cast me in a very poor light as part of this year's Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.
However, let's spin it another way. For a book to interest a habitual book blagger (like me) sufficiently to actually read it, and re-read it, it's got to be really good right?
At this juncture, I'm an experienced judge, but I am not an experienced reader of science books, unlike our Winton chair, Uta Frith, a self-confessed popular science books addict. So initially the process for me was nerve-wracking. If I have a tendency to blag it and pretend over popular fiction that, by common consensus is extremely entertaining, how to get into science books?
Imagine my surprise then that I am now re-reading the shortlist for pleasure rather than out of a sense of obligation. As a genre, science books are sometimes criticised for being dull or for writing that is below par in comparison to fiction. There's an interesting debate here on this Guardian podcast (it begins at around 12m 48s).
In it science writer, Ian Sample basically says he'd rather poke his eyes out with a stick than read a science book during his leisure time. Quite an admission. And a position I had a lot of empathy with at the start of this process. There were a number books on the initial sift - that numbered over one hundred - that I could've cheerfully set fire to. You'll be pleased to know that I feel differently about the shortlist. I simply no longer accept that geeks can't write. These can.
In fact when you think of the task they undertake - and I don't think any of the shortlist makes you feel like it was in any way 'a task' - they have to be doubly good. It's not like they can dream up a mercurial Scandanavian detective and let them carry the plot for example. They have to explain who discovered what, when and how and by which experiments, they must debunk or uphold skeptics and naysayers from the professional to the recreational and explain the basics of particle physics all wrapped in an absorbing narrative.
The shortcomings of science writing might be manifest but so are the benefits. I like for example the protocol of crediting and explaining the research and people that went before and got us to where we are now. Handled deftly, these stories are in themselves rich and illuminating. Naturally I'm drawn to the more extreme examples. Who wouldn't love Mr Moon, who appears briefly in Bird Sense? In order to prove that the eye is just the instrument for seeing and that the brain sorts out the image for us, Moon makes himself some image-inverting specs that the turn the world upside down and tests his theory by taking his plane for a spin. The original science nut.
The books on the shortlist are full of passion and the authors never fail to justify their respective loves and disciplines, from a drive to change our pathological treatment of the great oceans to defending the $9 billion poster project for Big Science. The surprise for me? Some science jokes are quite funny and physicists come up with good one-liners. Call me impressionable but I also enjoy it when there's a rockstar in the room, say in the form of Higgs Boson, the star of The Particle at the End of the Universe. At which point you have to be careful not to be too starstruck by the $9 billion Large Hadron Collider and judge it fairly against a quieter lifetime's study of the sex life of a male buffalo weaver (actually not that quiet). The judging process always involves judging apples against pears at some point.
Another unexpected kick is the buzz that you get from being informed about current research - authors will also tell us to watch out for the completion of a study in the future or forthcoming research. To feel up to date and invested enough to keep an eye out is a real bonus from well researched (and written) science books. I'd argue you can't really get that from other media which by contrast can seem limited and lacking in intellectual nutrition. As one of our shortlisted writers Sean Carroll puts it (though admittedly by way of illustrating a wholly different point), 'The Kardashians will still be acting up tomorrow'. So for today, I'm willingly spending a bit of my time on trying to get to grips with particle physics. The Kardashians can wait for my attention.