From lab to library: Who's on the shortlist for the Royal Society's annual science book awards?
On Monday, the Royal Society will announce the winners of its annual science book awards. Steve Connor puts the shortlisted titles under the microscope
Wednesday 11 June 2008
A Life Decoded, My Genome My Life, by J. Craig Venter (Penguin, Allen Lane)
The bookies' favourite to win, possibly because the molecular biologist Craig Venter is one of the most well-known – and controversial – scientists in the world. This is his insider's account of the race to decode the human genome. With some justification, Venter believes that he has been unfairly vilified by the press as the privateer out to make a fast buck, whereas his competing colleagues in the publically funded genome consortium were painted with glowing haloes above their heads. As Venter points out, some of these publically funded scientists were just as keen, if not more so, to get their names on lucrative DNA patents.
This is Venter's life story, from the days as a boy when he would race his bike alongside planes taking off from a local airport, to the top of science, rubbing shoulders with Nobel laureates, presidents and prime ministers. Venter, however, has always been something of a maverick, which is why he is so much more interesting than most scientific personalities. Having achieved what he set out to do with the human genome, Venter now spends much of his time on his luxury yacht. But this is no retirement, having embarked on a maritime journey of discovery to find microbial life forms at sea that may help to solve the most pressing environmental issue of our time – climate change. You do feel that if anyone is going to crack that one, it might very well be a man with Venter's vision and energy.
Gut Feelings, by Gerd Gigerenzer (Penguin, Allen Lane)
This is something of a self-help book for smart people. The idea is that, at the title suggests, we would get a little further in life if we made those necessarily quick decisions based more on our quick-witted instinct instead of mind-numbing information. He cites the example of a question such as, "which city has the bigger population, Detroit or Milwaukee?" Americans are quite likely to get the answer wrong because they are know a little about each place and so try to make a decision based on confusing signals. Germans, meanwhile, are likely to have never heard of Milwaukee and so choose the city they know about, which turns out to be the correct answer – Detroit. Gerd Gigerenzer, a professor of psychology, gives good reasons for believing in why fast, effective decision making requires not just intelligence but sometimes a conscious effort to ignore some things that could get in the way. Taking short cuts really does work, it seems.
The Sun Kings, by Stuart Clark (Princeton University Press)
It is the most visible thing in the sky, yet the Sun is perhaps the most difficult object to study. This was certainly true in the 1850s, when a young gentleman astronomer, Richard Carrington, first took an active interest in the Sun – taking care not to look directly at the subject. Even today, the Sun-watching Soho satellite has to battle against intense blasts of radiation, fierce heat and a scorching wind of smashed atoms to gather data on our star's explosive activity.
This is a historical science book written with a wonderful narrative. Anyone who enjoyed Dava Sobel's Longitude will like this tome. Some of the greatest names in Victorian science make their appearance in this tale of how we began to learn more about the stellar body on which we all depend. Carrington went on to become the first to describe how the Earth became engulfed in a gigantic cloud of seething gas as an 1859 solar storm erupted. Clark also describes how Carrington himself became engulfed in an equally destructive storm that devastated his life and led him to ruin.
Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas (Fourth Estate)
Mark Lynas draws on Dante's "Inferno", and the Sixth Circle of Hell, to describe what might happen with each, progressively higher, degree rise in average global temperatures. If global temperatures rise 1C above what humanity has been used to for the past 10,000 years, we can expect some fairly serious consequences. But these dwindle into near insignificance if temperatures continue to rise if we fail to curb global warming.
A rise in 1C will cause the ice caps to melt, perhaps irreversibly. At 3C we can expect the Amazon to go up in flames, but 6C is something that is almost beyond our imagination – indeed, we have to delve back into geological history to study a time when this last happened. A 6C rise, needless to say, is unthinkable.
This book is not for the faint-hearted, but at least Lynas gives us something to think about in terms of what is very likely to happen unless we do something about it. And the quicker we act, the less risk there is of the inferno he depicts.
Why Beauty is Truth: A History of Symmetry, by Ian Stewart (Basic Books)
They say science writers lose half of their readers for every equation they use. That may be true of most authors, but Ian Stewart appears to be an exception. He manages to write about mathematics without making it seem difficult, although the concepts he is dealing with are difficult enough.
Ancient Babylonia is said to be the cradle of civilisation. It was also the nursery of mathematics, which became the necessary "handmaiden" of astronomy – something else the Babylonians were good at. According to Stewart, the most important thing about the Babylonian mathematicians is that they began to understand how to solve equations. And here lies the roots of our understanding of symmetry, a subject at the very heart of relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory and much of modern cosmology.
It was John Keats who said that beauty is truth, truth beauty. Now Stewart attempts to explain why beauty is truth, in particular the symmetrical beauty we see all around us. Although some parts of his book may lie just beyond the intellectual reach of many readers, the joy of Stewart's writing is that he always offers something – an anecdote or surprising aside – to bring you back into the fold.
Coral, A Pessimist in Paradise, by Steve Jones (Little Brown)
Steve Jones is a familiar name on the science books general prize shortlist, and indeed won it in 1994 with his best-ever selling book, The Language of Genes. This time, Jones turns his attention to the undersea life form that produces some of the most magnificent and beautiful creations on Earth – coral. Inspired by Charles Darwin, who took an interest in coral more than 150 years ago and solved the mystery of how coral atolls were formed, Jones weaves around the subject with his usual literary dexterity.
Coral islands may seem like paradise but, as Jones points out, they are inhospitable places to live if you are a largish mammal, which perhaps explains why many coral islanders have in the past turned to cannibalism to supplement their meagre rations. Yet coral itself does not find life easy, especially when sea-temperatures rise, as they did in the summers of 1997 and 1998 when one sixth of the planet's coral suddenly lost its colour. These "bleaching" episodes occur when the photosynthetic algal microbe that lives alongside the animal polyp in coral is ejected. Bleachings may not be immediately fatal, but they can soon lead to the death of a coral reef.
Jones explains how corals have much to inform us about subjects as diverse as cancer and climate change. But more than that, corals could be our proverbial canary in the coalmine. Within 20 years, scientists predict that half of the world's coral reefs may have disappeared for good because of environmental degradation and global warming.
It's easy to see why Steve Jones is a pessimist.
Frozen poo and green snot: the junior prize
Adult judges (whose comments are below) pick the shortlist, but panels of children choose the winner.
How the Incredible Human Body Works, Richard Walker (Dorling Kindersley)
"Impressively explanatory, this book is a novel way of drawing children into science."
Ask Dr K Fisher About Animals, Claire Llewellyn (Macmillan)
"A wonderfully novel approach to science. Guidance to animals on growing up, dating and diet."
Big Book of Science Things to Make and Do, Rebecca Gilpin and Leonie Pratt (Usborne)
"A good 'doing' book. With so many activities, children won't be able to put this down!"
It's Elementary! Putting the Crackle into Chemistry, Robert Winston (Dorling Kindersley)
"We thought it was difficult to present chemistry in an engaging way, but this book succeeds spendidly."
Serious Survival: How to Poo in the Arctic and Other Essential Tips, Marshall Corwin (HarperCollins)
"Science by the back door – with a great wealth of information."
Why is Snot Green? Science Museum Question and Answer Book, Glenn Murphy (Macmillan)
"This book is what science is about. A good 'why' book for inquisitive minds."
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Review: Cilla, ITV TV
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