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)

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power