Scientists and storytellers

Good research is not enough. Science books must also be a good read, says Tom Wilkie

Something strange has happened to British bookshops in the past decade. Popular books about science have crawled out of the basement ghetto which bears the dread label "Technical Department" and on to the main display shelves, to sit alongside the novels, biographies, horoscopes and "holistic" health guides.

Like any business, the book trade has responded to what it perceives as consumer demand for books about science. But while the shelves groan with tomes on particle physics and cosmology (with genetics coming up fast on the inside) the subject matter of the book which last week won the 1995 Science Book Prize - chemistry - has hitherto been conspicuous by its absence.

The Rhone-Poulenc Prizes for Science Books are worth pounds 10,000 each. Although this is not quite as much as the Booker, it is substantial enough to attract attention: from authors (naturally), journalists and from the publishing trade itself.

This year's prize in the general category went to John Emsley, a regular contributor to the Independent, for his book The Consumer's Good Chemical Guide. Dr Emsley's guide to chemicals in our daily lives - from perfumes to painkillers - is a book about the science which we encounter, often unwittingly, every day.

But its very success highlights the fact that popular chemistry books are unusual - indeed, Dr Emsley's is unique. At first sight, this seems a little strange. The popular topics - cosmology and particle physics - deal with entities which are incredibly remote from our everyday experience and our normal lives. But chemistry is not like that.

All life on this planet, for example, is but an extended variation upon the chemistry of the element carbon. The clothes that we wear and the dyes used to colour them to our notions of fashion all derive from the chemist's art and its application through the chemical industry. What, then, could be more relevant to us than chemistry?

One problem is that the chemists appear not to have mastered the most basic literary form of all: telling a story. Whether it is something intrinsic to the subject or personal to the makeup of chemists, they have not appreciated (as the cosmologists, particle physicists and even the mathematicians have understood) that they have to take the reader by the sleeve and say, "Let me tell you a story."

Popular books and articles, whether they be about chemistry or any other subject, have to have a beginning, a middle and an end. Too many attempts at popular chemistry read rather like a telephone directory: "here is a compound; here is another compound; here is another". Dr Emsley's book does contain the names of many compounds, but he has woven a narrative around them: they are not exhibited for themselves, but for the stories that they tell.

None the less, the decision to award the prize to Dr Emsley caught many by surprise, not least the writer himself. The pundits were caught out, too: in a thumbnail guide to the books published on the morning of the award presentation, the Daily Telegraph had dismissed Dr Emsley's work. "Every so often, the shortlist contains an entry that raises one question: What on earth is it doing here?" the Telegraph thundered. Winning, as it turned out.

At the presentation dinner in the Science Museum, Simon Jenkins, former editor of the Times and chairman of the judging panel, remarked that it was not a book that the judges could not put down. It was a book that they found themselves constantly picking up again. The fact that it was a book about science and its workaday human impact, rather than esoteric stuff about Mars or the Human Genome Project, also seems to have swayed the jury.

The prize for books directed at readers under 14 went to Jay Adams for The Most Amazing Pop-Up Science Book. This, too, is unconventional: it extends the conventional concept of a book by including devices such as a hand-operated record player, a microscope and a sundial.

Despite the boom in popular science writing of recent years, Mr Jenkins had a word of warning for the scientists. The judges felt many writers about science do not make it fun or easy reading. They seem to have little feeling for the vivid and intelligent use of the English language.

Here is an eloquent case for giving today's generation of students a better education, not in the technical aspects of their subjects, but in the appreciation and use of their medium of communication: English.

Promoting the public understanding of science is now official government policy, for which responsibility rests with the science and technology department. Given the need for better general education of scientists, emphasised by Mr Jenkins, perhaps we should be hearing more from the Department for Education about its commitment to the public understanding of science.

Winners of the 1995 Rhone-Poulenc Prizes for Science Books: 'The Most Amazing Pop-up Science Book' by Jay Young (Watts Books, pounds 14.99); 'The Consumer's Good Chemical Guide' by John Emsley (WH Freeman, pounds 18.99).

Life and Style
“What is it like being a girl?” was the question on the lips of one inquisitive Reddit user this week
News
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
Armando Iannucci, the creator of 'The Thick of It' says he has
tvArmando Iannucci to concentrate on US show Veep
Life and Style
beauty
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
transfers
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Sport
German supporters (left) and Argentina fans
world cup 2014Final gives England fans a choice between to old enemies
Arts and Entertainment
A still from the worldwide Dawn of the Planet of the Apes trailer debut
film
News
peopleMario Balotelli poses with 'shotgun' in controversial Instagram pic
News
A mugshot of Ian Watkins released by South Wales Police following his guilty pleas
peopleBandmates open up about abuse
Sport
Basketball superstar LeBron James gets into his stride for the Cleveland Cavaliers
sportNBA superstar announces decision to return to Cleveland Cavaliers
Sport
Javier Mascherano of Argentina tackles Arjen Robben of the Netherlands as he attempts a shot
world cup 2014
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight
tv
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Four ski officials in Slovenia have been suspended following allegations of results rigging
sportFour Slovenian officials suspended after allegations they helped violinist get slalom place
News
14 March 2011: George Clooney testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing titled 'Sudan and South Sudan: Independence and Insecurity.' Clooney is co-founder of the Satellite Sentinel Project which uses private satellites to collect evidence of crimes against civilian populations in Sudan
people
Arts and Entertainment
Balaban is indirectly responsible for the existence of Downton Abbey, having first discovered Julian Fellowes' talents as a screenwriter
tvCast members told to lose weight after snacking on set
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
tech
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Linux Systems Administrator

£33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice