View From Here

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE END of the book is nigh - or so they say.

Ever since the invention of cinema, someone has been predicting "the end of the book as we know it". No one will read now that they can listen to the wireless, they said in the Thirties. No one will buy books when they can vegetate in front of a TV set, they said in the Sixties. No kids will read words on paper when they can tap into the Internet, they're saying in the Nineties.

So far they've always been wrong. Books of the film or the TV series can sell millions; the Internet now carries Earth's Biggest Bookstore, and ordinary bookshops (I mean those buildings with real books in) are selling more, not fewer, books than ever. They are even selling more science books.

I love science books. Forget clothes, food, music - my weakness is books, and in my local Waterstones I make a beeline for the popular science table. Whoever puts the books there has (unwittingly, I presume) enormous power over me. On a good day I reflect with satisfaction that I have read most of the books on there - but then I always see one or two more, in impressively big piles, with endorsements by important scientists I've actually heard of, and I know I have to buy them. Whatever the topic, I rarely regret my indulgence (though I mustn't go in there too often). The fact is, there are some great science books about.

I wonder whether the chance to win a big prize has helped. Ten years ago Copus, the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science, fearful of the imminent demise of popular science book publishing, set up what is now the Rhone-Poulenc Science Book Prize. It's not (yet?) as famous as the Booker prize, but is worth pounds 10,000 to the winners and pounds 1,000 to the runners-up.

This week, the prizes were awarded at a grand dinner in the Science Museum. Fifty-two children's books and 109 grown-ups' books were entered for the prize - and what a line-up.

Human innards, muscles and bones, where babies come from, and yum-yumming your way through the food chain were all in the children's short list, as well as oceans and the Big Bang. The chair of the judges, Adam Hart- Davis (that cycling science presenter in the much-laughed-at pink and yellow gear), explained that the panel chose six books and then handed them over to groups of school kids to vote on each one. This is a good idea since the books are written for them, but not without its dangers. What will a seven-year-old make of a cosmology book for teenagers? And won't "grown-up" 10-year-olds look down on Book of Oceans as a winner. But their real praise went to Yikes!, a book of close-ups inside the body - "I didn't put it down because it's so disgusting," said one girl. "I would definitely recommend this book to boys who want to scare their sisters," said another.

The adult short list covered Fermat's last theorem, twins, the fabric of reality, life itself, and a book on biology by Ernst Mayr - who sent apologies for not being present - at the age of 94.

The winner was my favourite - and the second win for the author Jared Diamond. Guns, Germs and Steel is, according to its subtitle, "A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years". Diamond is a physiology professor who also studies birds and human evolution. Many years ago, working on bird ecology in Papua New Guinea, he had a memorable conversation with his friend Yali. Why is it, asked Yali, that you white people had so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, while we black people had so little of our own? The book is Diamond's brilliant answer.

The key lies not in differences in intelligence or ability, but in the land. Regions with domesticable plants and animals, and with geography suited to cultural diffusion, were the first to invent farming and to take advantage of neighbouring inventions. Cultures that co-evolved with diseases later killed off other cultures with those very germs. The story of human invention, invasion and conquest is not a happy one, but it makes a lot of sense in the light of Diamond's analysis. This is a book that anyone can enjoy - indeed I bought it for my 75-year-old mum before I even knew it was on the list.

No doubt these books will get even bigger piles in Waterstones, but so they should. The end of the science book is definitely not nigh.

The writer is senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the West of England.

Comments