Seeing the world differently: science books

Winton PrizeWell, that’s my Christmas list sorted. Some of the most exciting writing being published at the moment will never be listed for the Man Booker, and can’t be found under the label ‘fiction’. If the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books 2013 is anything to go by, it’s to be found in science.

The six books on the shortlist span the air and the sea, ranged from barely-discoverable particles to barely-imagined beasts, took us from cells to Cezanne’s apples, and called into question whether anyone who was at the awards ceremony will be able to agree with anyone else about what happened.

The challenge and achievement of good science writing is to make the complex comprehensible, to convey the excitement of discovery without short-changing the hard slog that precedes it, to make connections so that people who never made it past physics GCSE can see the world in a different light.

The shortlisted authors each had a go at explaining how they did it. They agreed that analogies were crucial, but dangerous. Analogies, one author pointed out, ‘permeate professional science’. Cells refer to monk’s spartan dwellings; particles and waves take their cue from the sea shore. What is this thing like, how can I describe it so that someone else can get their head around it?

There was agreement that literary techniques and storytelling were crucial in getting a point across. Humour, too, was seen as enormously helpful, especially in keeping the attention of undergraduate science students in lectures. ‘Humour works because you get people to see things in an unexpected way,’ commented one author. Scientific research also can involve turning around the way we understand the world.

The evening’s host, comedian Dara O’Briain, would have had no argument with that. He’s brought a whole new audience to science through his witty and entertaining TV programmes, and was an engaging and thoughful interviewer of the shortlisted authors.

So which to recommend? I’ve yet to read any of them, but the three I’m most tempted by are Charles
Fernyhaugh’s Pieces of Light, about how the memory works (clue: it’s not like a video recorder); Tim Birkhead’s Bird Sense, in which research students get up close and personal with gannets, and Ocean of Life, Callum Robert’s call to arms for us to embrace the wonder of the oceans and protect their life, before it’s too late. The judges, who presumably have read all the books, voted for Sean Carroll’s The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the search for the Higgs Bosun. And if I was to wake up on Christmas morning with Enrico Coen’s Cells to Civilisations, or Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, I’d be pretty happy too.

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