Scientists and storytellers
Tuesday 30 May 1995
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).
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