Under the microscope: It takes energy to win a prize

THE WELLCOME TRUST COMPETITION
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The poster from the The Wellcome Trust, the medical research charity, showed pens protruding from a sawn-off head and was followed by an enticing competition. The winner, a professional scientist, would have the chance to write a book for the general public on the biomedical subject of their choice.

Many of us bench-bound practitioners would give eye teeth and right arms to take on such a project, to have the chance of putting one's ideas and even dreams into a form comprehensible to the general reader - and thus to see the wood for the trees, pull out the Big Idea, and to speculate. When once asked how he had developed his extraordinary and awesome theories, Einstein claimed "I used my imagination." Increasingly such an intellectual path is denied us by the straitjacket of funding policy in this country. The anal retentive attitude towards grant proposals puts iron weights on any flights of imagination, global overview, or paradigm shift. The only way is to write a book.

In order to smooth the path for the triumphant beneficiary, serious money was on the table: enough to buy a year off university teaching. In addition, a contract with a publisher was assured, hence obviating another hurdle for neophyte authors who have no contacts in the publishing world, and generally no knowledge of what is required or where to start. This scheme was thus marvellous, not just because it offered a struggling scientist the chance to realise a dream, but also because it enforced for the general public the excitement of science. In addition, it rammed home the message to the rest of the scientific community that the dissemination of science to a "popular" audience, is a worthwhile and much needed endeavour.

My involvement was more than as an interested bystander; I ended up as one of the judges, along with another scientist Lewis Wolpert (with whom I have the honour to share this column), a medical and social historian, Professor Roy Porter (The Wellcome Trust), Toby Mundy (a publisher from HarperCollins) and Dr Paul Wymer a representative of The Wellcome Trust (Head of Communication and Education). The task was not easy. The contestants had been asked to write a synopsis and supply a specimen chapter. And the abundance and originality of ideas made me feel like a child in a sweet shop. What to choose when everything was so good?

So many different qualities make a good science book: the need for originality of subject, a pacey and engaging style, and a new hypothesis or viewpoint all made strident and conflicting demands as I explored the entries and then chewed them over with the panel. In the end we did agree that one entry was exactly what we were after, in all its facets. Dr Guy Brown is a Royal Society Research Fellow in the Department of Biochem-istry in Cambridge: his entry was startling because it was on a subject that was so basic, and so pervasive to our lives, and no one had written a popular book on it before. Brown's idea was to write on energy in all its guises. He proposed to use it as a vehicle for covering a huge range of science, from discovering what energy is, through to how it fuels the body, and then on from physico-chemical mechanisms to more abstracted concepts such as sexual energy, arousal and the perception of time.

The sad aspect of judging was that there could only one winner. I say that not just as a consolation to other entrants, but because many more would have been publishable. In the current mood of an ever increasing demand for science, it is a tragedy to see such excellent proposals unrealised. Perhaps publishers should consider making themselves more widely known to science departments at universities, with offers a little like that from the Wellcome Trust. If there is ever more scope for the general public to be let in on the thrill of all manner of discoveries, then surely no publisher would resent being the prime mover.

Susan Greenfield is Gresham Professor of Physic at Lincoln College, Oxford

Comments