Fans of the novelist Joanne Harris (and there are nearly 14,000 of them just on Twitter) will be pleased to know that she is working on about five things in that famous shed of hers, and has recently received a bolt of inspiration. At last week’s reception for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, Harris, who was a judge, told Between the Covers that reading about 150 science books had given her “lots” of inspiration. “Non-fiction is full of great stories,” she explains. If her next novel is about the search for the Higgs boson, we’ll know why.
That’s because the prize-winner was Sean Carroll’s The Particle at The End of The Universe, described by the chair of the judges, Professor Uta Frith, as “a real rock star of a book”. There was a bit of a Brits Awards moment as Sir Paul Nurse, the Royal Society’s president, tried to build envelope-opening tension and Carroll’s book cover was prematurely flashed on screen. “It was a bit like that day at the large hadron collider,” quipped the host, Dara O Briain, “when they all knew what the announcement was but had to wait until somebody read it out.”
On stage, the shortlisted authors debated the importance of humour in science communication. It came as a relief to those in the audience who had tittered when Tim Birkhead read, from his magnificent book Bird Sense, a scene in which his PhD student, Mark, discovered that the red-billed buffalo weaver appears to orgasm at the moment of sexual climax. Discovered, that is, by personally bringing a buffalo weaver to climax. Sadly, Mark was not at the event, but Professor Birkhead tells Between the Covers: “I sent him a copy of the book [and] he knows I rate him very highly as a researcher and ... an educator”, adding mysteriously: “Many of my students have done many things you might find surprising.”
From his book Pieces of Light, Charles Fernyhough read a passage about false memories, and how they can be used in advertising. It explains, apparently, why research subjects said they had enjoyed some popcorn though they hadn’t eaten it. But what explains why he and O Briain were wearing identical M&S shirts?