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Blog

Prize-worthy books, part 1

By Margaret Harris

Last night’s awards ceremony for the 2012 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books highlighted the diversity of modern science writing, with six very different books competing for the prestigious £10,000 award.

Two of the shortlisted authors, James Gleick and Brian Greene, are well known in the physics community thanks to their earlier bestsellers on (respectively) chaos theory and string theory. However, they were not the only heavyweights competing, with Gleick’s book The Information and Greene’s The Hidden Reality up against Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein; Lone Frank’s My Beautiful Genome; Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature; and Nathan Wolfe’s The Viral Storm. For those of you keeping track, that’s one book about information theory; one about multiple universes; one about the science of memory; one about genomics; one on the psychology of conflict; and one on emerging infectious diseases. Whew!

The ceremony’s host, comedian Ben Miller, began by riffing on some of the year’s big scientific events, including the summer’s (probable) discovery of the Higgs boson at CERN and the recent (rumoured) discovery of methane on Mars. The biggest laugh of the evening came later, though, when Miller was interviewing Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, one of five judges for the award. After Miller complained that studying science at school hadn’t offered him much in the way of “social lubrication”, Bell Burnell’s response was a deadpan, “Try being a female physicist!”

The bulk of the evening, however, belonged to the shortlisted authors themselves. After reading brief passages from their books, five of the authors (Wolfe was unable to attend) joined Miller onstage for a panel discussion, fielding questions about their books and the role of science communication. For me, this was a highlight of the evening; aside from The Hidden Reality, which was on Physics World‘s list of the “best physics books of 2011″, I hadn’t read any of the shortlisted books, so it was great to learn a little more about each of them.

In his speech announcing the prize, Royal Society president Sir Paul Nurse hailed the recent “renaissance” in science writing, adding that the shortlisted books were “all great contributions to that tradition”. But there could only be one winner – and it was James Gleick’s The Information, which the judges praised as an “audacious book” offering “remarkable insight” into how information is used, transmitted and stored. Gleick seemed genuinely surprised, thanking “all the very smart people who have helped me over the years” before being bundled into a live TV interview with Channel Four News.

After the formal event finished, I made a beeline for the judging panel. With Physics World’s own shortlist for 2012′s Physics Book of the Year due to be announced later this week, I thought I might pick up some last-minute tips.

One member of the panel, science-fiction author Jasper Fforde, told me he had looked for books that were “new, fresh and exciting” and used science to tell a story, rather than just conveying information. “We weren’t interested in the type of books that make you say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know beryllium did that,’” he explained. By his own admission, though, Fforde is not a scientist, so I tried the same question with Bell Burnell. She explained that winnowing down the 106 nominated books was initially not too difficult. “You read the introduction and the first chapter, then maybe one in the middle, and that’s all you need,” she said cheerfully, miming the process of picking up a book, reading a few pages and putting it down again. But selecting 12 books for the longlist was much more difficult, she said, adding that she re-read some books several times before deciding whether they should make the cut.

Ultimately, though, The Information won out, receiving the judges’ unanimous support. I’m sure it will get tucked into a few stockings this Christmas. And maybe there’ll be room in there for Physics World‘s top books, too…

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