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GUEST BLOG: Looking for clarity

27th September 2011 - Richard Holmes

Richard HolmesProfessor Richard Holmes, OBE is recognised as one of Britain's foremost biographers, specialising in the Romantic era. His books include Coleridge: Early Visions, winner of the 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year, Coleridge: Darker Reflections, winner of the Duff Cooper Prize and the Heinemann Award, and Dr Johnson and Mr Savage, winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Most recently, he is the author of The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, about the era of science immediately prior to Darwin, which was awarded the 2009 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, Britain's most prestigious prize for science writing. He is married to Orange Prize-winning novelist Rose Tremain.

This year Richard chairs the judging panel of the Prize he won in 2009 and on the release of the 2011 shortlist and here he blogs exclusively for Foyles about how he and his team came to choose the final six.


Science of course should have no secrets. So here are some of my private Diary Notes, made during the judging panel sessions for this year's Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.

We meet at the Royal Sock's splendid creamy residence in Carlton House Terrace, shepherded through the long carpeted corridors of scientific power, with portraits of Newton, Banks, Franklin, Davy, Faraday... gazing meaningfully down at us. After some considerable time we reach a gleaming committee room that seems entirely composed of glass (except no glass ceiling). The implication is clear: we are here to value clarity, transparency, truth.

We discover that we are a curiously heterogeneous group. Cait MacPhee is a professor of biological physics at Edinburgh; Robert Llewellyn is an actor-author-science-presenter (and TV star of Red Dwarf); Jenny Clack is herself a Fellow of the Royal Society and professor of palaeontology from Cambridge. And I am - well - a literary biographer with scientific tendencies. No one knows who selected us, or why, or when, and we don't ask.

First impressions. Cait is cool, and reads the books on her iPad. Robert is funny, voluble and self-deprecating and knows all about electric cars. Jenny is meticulous, and fearless with things like spiders or evolution. I sign my notes to the panel not "your Chair" but "your Deckchair".

There are excellent, if rather idealistic, Royal Society guidelines for us: "You should be looking for books that explain aspects of science in a stimulating, engaging, clear and accessible manner, whether written by a scientist, a professional science writer, journalist or non-scientist.... Topics that reflect issues of public interest, from the origins of the universe and the human race, to the opportunities and concerns created by today's developments in science, engineering and technology".

Self Comes to Mind by Antonio DamasioStarting in June we read 134 titles, which sounds impossible, but many 'boffin' books, grim little textbooks, some nerd lit and several small volumes pontificating about climate change quickly fell by the wayside.

We are initially impressed by several big science names - Stephen Hawking, Robert Winston, Roger Penrose, Edward O Wilson, Antonio Damasio, Frank Close, Matt Ridley - all fascinating authors, but rather to our own surprise we find none finally make our shortlist, though there is a lot of argument about Ridley's The Rational Optimist.

We find that there are distinct fashions in science, just like anything else. This year the smart money seems to be on cosmology, mathematics, climate change, particle physics, and consciousness theory. Cait laments a strange absence of good biology. Jenny worries about climate change statistics. Robert squares up to particle physics. I am disappointed to find no really outstanding science biography. By contrast there are some marvellous traditional books about natural history - bees, spiders, mosquitos or simply water - which we all like, but none of these finally make it either.

Where we doubt the science, according to the rules, we can call in expert opinions from Fellows of the Royal Society. We do actually commission special reports on some half a dozen occasions, and also go off to do our own researches. I find myself reporting back on genetic damage to swallow populations at Chernobyl.

Despite the composition of our panel, no women authors finally made the shortlist - though a wacky American book about astronauts, Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach, a science journalist for the New York Times, with a good deal about zero gravity and vomiting and sex, causes general delight.

As we refine our lists, I noticed certain comments bring the kiss of death. "Stodgy", "biased" or "fluffy at the edges" are usually fatal. In the end our shortlist turns on certain sterling qualities: books that are genuinely original and eye-opening; books that take us slightly out of our depth (but also bring us back again); books that really inspire and engage us; and books that have unmistakable hallmark of personal passion in the writing.

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam KeanOur final shortlist also salutes the very varied styles in which popular science can now be written. Massive is a kind of thriller narrative. The Wavewatcher's Companion has a poetic visionary quality. Through the Language Glass deploys a deft mandarin humour. The Disappearing Spoon sparkles with historical anecdotes. Alex's Adventures in Numberland produces amazing interviews with individual mathematicians. The Rough Guide to the Future creates a sort of thought-provoking multimedia hypertext.

I have sat on a few Prize panels before - the Somerset Maugham, the Guardian First Book, and the Ondaatje (with Dame Beryl Bainbridge and James Daunt, a memorable duo). But none have had quite this feel of openness, of the free exchange of knowledge, and also vital admissions of ignorance. On one occasion I read out a sentence about the chemistry of radioactivity, saying plaintively that I just couldn't understand it. "Oh dear," says Cait mildly, and explains it to me completely in about 30 seconds flat. "That's right" says Jenny. "Aha!" says Robert.

It has all made me reflect on the history of popular science writing. My theory is that we have entered a new Golden Age over the last decade, and startling new elements have been introduced into this once rather staid form of non-fiction. I might sum these new elements as follows: the Quest (James Watson), the Polemic (Richard Dawkins), the Unearthly (Stephen Hawking), the Humorous (Bill Bryson), the Brilliant Brief (Dava Sobel), and the Glamorous (Brian Cox, Kathy Sykes). We think the Royal Society is on to a good thing, we are hugely enjoying ourselves and we hope you will too.


Click here to see this year's shortlist, previous winners and a history of the Royal Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.

Click here to read our blog, originally posted in August, about the more obscure exploits of a former President of the Royal Society, Sir Humphry Davy.

Click here to find out about events at the Royal Society's festival of Literature and the Arts, One Culture, taking place on Saturday 1st and Sunday 2nd October.

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