Scientists are the best story-tellers

This week sees the announcement of a literary prize that has grown in stature in recent years: the Rhone-Poulenc award for science books. Founded after Stephen Hawking confounded the book trade by commandeering the best-seller lists, the pounds 10,000 prize has coincided with (and perhaps helped to fuel) a lavish boom in the publication of eligible titles. Writers such as Stephen Jay Gould and Steven Pinker (a likely winner this week) have become familiar names, and books such as Longitude and Fermat's Last Theorem have confirmed that Hawking's success was by no means an aberration. After decades of neglect - all those jokes about anoraks and blinkered chemists - science has returned to the mainstream. The dreary talk of two cultures also seems to be fading away. Novelists are eager to assimilate the wonders (not to mention the sales potential) of non- fiction. And while the cinema used to present scientists as nutty professors, these days it prefers cool dudes like Jeff Goldblum saving the world with a laptop, or cocky rebels like Matt Damon.

So far as the flood of new books is concerned, the simple fact is that science is better written than it used to be. Once austerely determined to speak purely in equations and formulae, it has rediscovered itself as a branch of storytelling. The procedures of scientific discovery are dramatic: the accelerating trials, errors and bewildering breakthroughs that led to uncovering the structure of DNA, or the military-driven race to split the atom out in the dusty American badlands - these are thrillers.

This year's prize, however, comes at a time when the scientific world stands once again in an ambiguous light. Public anxieties about genetically modified food have made scientists seem, once again, dangerous Frankensteins. There is indeed a flipside to the current fashion for scientific thinking, especially when "science" is invoked as a template for social life. A frightening amount of modern evolutionary thinking seems determined to lock the sexes once again inside the foggy old stereotypes by which men hunt, and women keep the house tidy. In these areas, science flirts stupidly with New Age nonsense. In the wrong hands, science books are merely long-winded horoscopes.

It would be a shame, though, if any of this were to inspire a full-blown anti-scientific bias. The long history of human civilisation has been a history of triumphing over the modesty of our natural gifts - of triumphing over nature, in other words. Our babies are unable to fend for themselves for years, whereas any old hyena cub is up and about within hours. We have had to impose ourselves on and disrupt the natural order of things merely to survive, and we bend nature to our will every time we rip weeds out of the garden, have a filling or take an aspirin. But if scientific literature is ostensibly a DIY guide to the way we live now, it also has the power of revelation: it can tell us things we did not know before.

Not always, though. Some years ago I served as a judge on the Rhone- Poulenc Prize. Eager for non-scientists, the organisers asked me politely if I would take part. I declined, pleading a lack of time; and the next thing I knew, a crate of books arrived with a breezy letter thanking me for agreeing to help. There seemed nothing for it but to plunge in. I had a lot to learn, and some of it stuck. I learnt (from our winner, Jared Diamond) that humans are genetically distinct from chimpanzees by only 2 per cent, and that we are therefore more closely related to them than they are to gorillas. I learnt that the Arabian oryx drinks by licking stones in the fog (and nearly became extinct as a result). I learnt that people are much happier to talk about the "butterfly effect" than they are to figure out what it means. And I learnt that when Darwin was travelling through Argentina en route to his world-changing theories, he fell with some enthusiasm on a local delicacy: foetal puma.

What I remember most keenly of all, alas, is that it is quite possible to read a great many books on particle physics, for instance, without understanding or retaining anything very much at all. But even this is helpful to publishers. It means that half a dozen books on mathematics or the brain can come out simultaneously, and no one minds. If Stephen Hawking were to publish An Even Briefer History of Time, you can bet your bottom dollar it would be enthusiastically snapped up by the millions who didn't quite make it to the end first time round.

The Rhone-Poulenc shortlist: Steven Pinker, 'How the Mind Works' (Penguin); Rita Carter, 'Mapping the Mind' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson); Robert Weinberg, 'One Renegade Cell' (Weidenfeld); Paul Hoffman, 'The Man Who Loved only Numbers (Fourth Estate); E O Wilson, 'Consilience' (Little, Brown); Sylvia Nasur, 'A Beautiful Mind' (Faber)