Wednesday, 20 October 2010

And the winner is...

Tomorrow night is popular science's equivalent of the BAFTAs - the Royal Society Prize for Science Books will be awarded. There's a interesting  shortlist:

We need to talk about Kelvin Marcus Chown Uses everyday observations to plunge into quantum theory, thermodynamics and cosmology. Great fun and very readable. Shortlist
Why Does E=mc2 Brian Cox & Jeff Forshaw Explanation of the derivation of the world's most famous equation, exploration of the standard model master equation and great exposition of Higgs - but too technical for the general reader. Shortlist
God's Philosophers James Hannam Highly informative and surprisingly readable book filling in just what developments were made in the history of science during the medieval period. Short list
Life Ascending Nick Lane Visit bookshop Visit bookshop        Short list
A World without Ice Henry Pollack Visit bookshop Visit bookshop        Short list

I have to say for me there are some oddities in there. In the table above you see the ratings of the ones we've reviewed on the Popular Science website (click the titles or summaries for a detailed review) - some, yes, are great. Some, frankly, rather less so. I can't help but think this is in part because of the odd nature of the judging panel. It is Maggie Philbin, Radio and television presenter (Chair); Professor Tim Birkhead, Fellow of the Royal Society; Tracy Chevalier, author; Robin Ince, stand-up comedian, writer and actor; Dr Janet Anders, Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow. So, basically, a couple of academics, a couple of media types and a fiction writer. How many popular science writers? Well... none. Nothing like getting the experts in.

On the Popular Science website we also feature our 'extras' - books that were published in the right period and really should have been on the shortlist, rather than some of those weird choices. This year it looks like this:

Atomic: the first war of physics Jim Baggott Riveting and detailed history of the development of nuclear weapons in Germany, the UK, the US and Russia. Fascinating in its depth and the lost possibilities for alternatives to nuclear proliferation. Overview
Before the Big Bang Brian Clegg The latest ideas on how the universe began, the limitations of the Big Bang theory and more in excellent popular history of how humans understand the universe. Cosmology
Dazzled and Deceived Peter Forbes Excellent book on the fascinating topic of mimicry and camouflage, covering both the natural world and military attempts. Great insights into evolutionary mechanisms. Biology, technology
Heatstroke Anthony Barnosky Excellent exploration of the impact of climate change on species, and how the present global warming could devastate nature. Earth science, biology
Microcosm Carl Zimmer Fascinating study of the bacterium E. coli with plenty of lessons for the understanding of life as a whole, and our attitude to human genetic material. Biology

Any road up, good luck to all those attending tomorrow. For me, the obvious choice is Marcus Chown's book - but let's face it, book prize panels specialize in not going for the obvious choice.


  1. Interesting that they are all male authors, on both shortlists. Does this mean that women don't write popular science books? Or that they do but they aren't considered to be very good? Or that they propose them but can't get them published? Or other?

  2. Maxine - there are a lot fewer female authors writing popular science books than male, but this was an unusual year in this regard.

    Perhaps a better guide would be our 'best' by year guide - so far, out of 9 in 2010, 3 are by female authors and out of 8 in 2009, 2 were by female authors.

    (The two female author books didn't qualify for the Royal Society Prize because, though we reviewed them in 2009, they were first published in 2008).

  3. Oh well, it looks as if the prize itself is now in trouble, owing to lack of sponsor...

  4. Indeed. Perhaps Nature could take up the mantle...

  5. It would be about three millionth on the list of similar requests, Brian ;-) But you never know....

  6. I am just relieved to see that Professor Brian Cox has not found his way onto the judging panel. I am tired of seeing him appear on anything vaguely scientific.

  7. Maxine - I can't imagine there are three million requests of the same standing as the Royal Society Prize.

    Tim - there would have been a touch of conflict of interest: one of his books is on the shortlist.

  8. Charles Freeman.23 October 2010 at 10:54

    I had profound doubts about God's Philosophers,so much so that I have written about it on the New Humanist blog. I think it would have been embarrassing to the reputation of the Royal Society if it had won. Charles Freeman.

  9. You can find Charles Freeman's detailed analysis of God's Philosophers here:

    I can't help but feel, Charles, that both points of view, yours and the author's are perhaps too highly flavoured by your attitude to religion - I can't see either as neutral.

    I gave the book a largely positive review (click the description above to read it), though much more on feel as a popular science book than analysis as scholasticism. (In fact, it really irritates me the way the RS prize almost always goes to academic books - I think, if anything they should be less significant than popular science books in this kind of prize. But then that's MY bias showing!)

    I think what is true is that for a long time the message has been that really nothing happened in the West in science between the ancient Greeks and Galileo, and this just isn't true. My own pet subject, Roger Bacon, is a good example. And to that extent at least, I would applaud this book for trying to remove a hugely misleading viewpoint, even if the author does so with a particular bias.

  10. Thanks for your reply , Brian. What I was really trying to say was that a large number of things that James Hannam talks about are simply not supported by any evidence and as such should not be taken seriously. You can take the simple point that I begin with, his view that there was no hiatus in progress (in fact he 'argues' for an 'advance') between the Roman empire and the early Middle Ages. I have read very widely in the scholarly literature of this period as it plays a large part in a book I have just finished on medieval relic cults, and I can assure you that the evidence for collapse is overwhelming. I could have gone on quoting more scholars like Chris Wickham (who talks of 'drastic simplification' in the economy of this period), etc, but my review was far too long as it was and I thought I had done enough. What worries me is that Hannam often says such things as if he was an authority. Does it not worry you that what he writes about humanism (in his PhD which seems sensible mainstream stuff ) and what he writes in God's Philosophers is so completely different?
    I am not sure who are all these people who hold such misleading opinions about the Middle Ages. There is wonderful scholarship on this period and no one should find it difficult to find out what really happened if they seriously want to find out. i would not start here! Robert Bartlett ,for instance, is very readable.

  11. Charles Freeman.25 October 2010 at 18:56

    P.S. I do have to present my bias. For many years, I was a Senior Examiner on the International Baccalaureate's Theory of Knowledge course. Students had to write critically about knowledge issues. Every statement they made in their presentation essays had to be footnoted accurately and their evidence was subject to checking. Their arguments had to follow coherently. I am afraid old habits of examining die hard but this book was shortlisted for a Prize by one of the world's top academic institutions and surely should be judged according to high academic standards.