The Royal Society Winton Prize: Top scientists and shortlisted authors share the books that have excited them

From Sarah Waters to Carolyn Porco

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books will be awarded this Thursday. Here, the shortlisted authors, and some of the world’s top scientists, share the science books that have excited, enthused, and entertained them

Sarah Waters - Novelist and 2015 Winton Prize judge

FWH Myers’ Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death would today be considered to be pseudo-science, and even on its first publication in 1903 it must have been a bit outré. But Myers’ book attempted to bring an intellectual rigour to the study of “psychical phenomena”, and it occupies a fascinating place on the border of spiritualism and experimental psychology. It reminds us that science has always been driven by our need to penetrate the profoundest mysteries of life and death – and that scientific disciplines always have blurry edges.

Sarah Waters poses in the Divinty School at the Bodleian Library where she is promoting her new book, The Paying Guests

Professor Matthew Cobb - Shortlisted for Life’s Greatest Secret: The Story of the Race to Crack the Genetic Code

Jim Watson’s The Double Helix changed how people look at science. The insider’s story of how the structure of DNA was discovered, it is partial, catty, unreliable, and utterly compelling. By describing the complex, all-too human motivations involved in research, Watson pulled aside the curtain of objectivity that shrouds many descriptions of discovery and showed that science is a social activity, full of friendship, personality clashes, and competition. In an afterword he acknowledges his bad treatment of Rosalind Franklin. Read it and be inspired.

Gaia Vince - Shortlisted for Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made

For treasure-seeking, bitter academic rivalry, and paradigm-shifting insight into the knowledge of the ancients, read Decoding the Heavens by Jo Marchant. It describes the discovery of a 2,000-year-old bronze mechanism by sponge divers off the Greek island of Antikythera, and the race to reconstruct it by archaeologists, physicists, and astronomers, who realised it was an intricate calendar of the cosmos, perhaps a solar-centric one. Dava Sobel’s Longitude and Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes From a Catastrophe are also great.

Dr Heather Williams - Senior Medical Physicist, Central Manchester University Hospitals; Director, ScienceGrrl

The Meaning of It All by Richard Feynman explores the contribution of science to wider society. I read this as a physics undergraduate and realised I was learning a mindset, not just a series of facts; it forever impressed on me that scientists should refine their thinking by connecting and conversing with those with differing expertise and experiences.


Professor Johnjoe McFadden - Shortlisted co-author of Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology

Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History combines great writing with beautifully-detailed drawings, and weaves a fascinating description of the world’s most enigmatic fossils with the story of their discovery and the social construction of their interpretation. For me, the book exemplified that the devil – in science – is in the detail; but that detail can be endlessly fascinating. It also helped to convince me that life is the most wonderful phenomenon in the known universe and its study is terrific fun!

Professor Jim Al-Khali - Shortlisted co-author of Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology

I was tempted to put down one of a handful of graduate textbooks that opened my eyes to the deep mathematical beauty of quantum mechanics, but that would be pretentious – and probably not true. In fact, I have gone for The Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose – a popular physics book that weaved together quantum mechanics, cosmology, thermodynamics, computer science, and philosophy in a way that I found captivating. I didn’t agree with all of it, but the breadth of the subject matter was inspiring and left an indelible mark on my own thinking.

Dr David Adam - Shortlisted for The Man Who Couldn’t Stop

I remember tracking down Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, about the early space programme test pilots, after I saw an advert for the [1983] film in the comic 2000AD. It was narrative non-fiction before the term became fashionable, but I just remember the story, which read like a thriller and wasn’t just “based” on a true story – it was a true story.  There probably wasn’t much actual science in there, but science is always done by people, and it showed me that the best writing focuses on people and the way they interact.

Prof. John Butterworth - Shortlisted for Smashing Physics: Inside the World’s Biggest Experiment

Science and the Universe, from the Mitchell Beazley joy of knowledge library,  was a Christmas present when I was 14, and I still have it, backed in clear plastic. It is beautiful, clear, and not at all patronising. It covers everything from polymers to space stations, but the page I remember is the one on relativity, with light bouncing between two mirrors, illustrating why movement makes time slow down, if the speed of light is to be constant. It definitely helped keep me motivated through the less-inspiring parts of school physics.

Dr Helen Czerski - Physicist, oceanographer and lecturer at UCL’s department of Mechanical Engineering

During my last week at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, I asked senior researchers for book recommendations. The one that stood out was Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World.  There was some irony there – I was working on ocean acoustics and it certainly isn’t silent down there.  But this book opened my eyes to early underwater exploration and the pioneers who made it possible. It’s also a really important reminder of how much the ocean, and our attitude to it, has changed.

Alex Bellos - Shortlisted for Alex Through the Looking-Glass

Logicomix by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou. Maths can be difficult to write about because the subject matter is so abstract and arcane. Yet this book about the early 20th-century quest for mathematical certainty is possibly the most gripping science book I have read. Their winning strategy is to tell the story as a graphic novel about the early life of Bertrand Russell, the British logician whose academic quest is to base maths on a firm logical foundation. I studied Mathematics and Philosophy at Oxford, and the book masterfully covers the most interesting material from that course in a way that is accessible and does not dumb down the big ideas.

Professor Monica Grady - Professor of Planetary and Space Sciences, The Open University

My book is The Best of Isaac Asimov, an anthology of 12 of his short stories. As a teenager, I Hoovered up Asimov’s work as fast as the local library could stock it. My favourite has to be “Nightfall”, about a world within a system of several stars, the orbits of which mean that there is always at least one “sun” in the sky, so it is never dark ... Asimov’s fiction is straightforward, and his stories embraced different concepts, including robotics (a word he coined), time travel, forensic science, history, astronomy, and physics. It appealed to me when I was on the brink of defining my own interests, and I re-read him now in admiration of his foresight and his creativity.

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock - Space scientist and author of The Knowledge: Stargazing (Quadrille)

CP Snow’s The Physicists transformed my career choices. Until then I had interacted with the great physicists through their equations and formulations. To my young mind they seemed to be mythical creatures who passed on the wisdom of the universe through books of mathematics and dry text. Snow transformed them into living, breathing humans with hopes, fears, dreams, and desires. It made them more special, because they had amazing insight into the physical laws but they were real people, too. It also made me want to emulate them so I decided to study physics rather than medicine at university. Physics was the subject that gave us all the keys to the universe and I wanted a career opening the doors.

Dr Carolyn Porco - Planetary scientist, public speaker, and leader of the imaging science team on the Cassini mission

The book that blew the doors off the house, grabbing me with its breathtakingly deep and irresistible view of the universe and our relation to it, was Intelligent Life in the Universe by IS Shklovskii and Carl Sagan.I recall an enchanting all-nighter completing a college homework assignment to read the first chapter.  I quickly found myself transfixed and unable to stop. By morning, I had read the entire book.  Doors to strange and wondrous places opened for me that night. Alice had free-fallen into Wonderland. Whatever spell Carl Sagan cast on us all back then had surely taken hold of me.