Monday, 28 November 2011

Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books

The Royal Society Winton prize is a prestigious award for popular science books. The aim is to encourage and highlight quality science writing which enhances the public's understanding of science. I have a personal and professional interest in science but I haven't studied it beyond school level so I feel that I am the kind of person who popular science writers should be trying to reach. More importantly as a College Librarian I'm interested in books which have the potential to inspire students and to help create enthusiasm for the study of science.

On the 17th I attended the event at the Royal Society where the winner was announced. (Yes, this is the third event I've mentioned going to on that Thursday. It was quite a busy day.) It was a genuinely inspiring evening. It was free and open to anyone so consider going to the 2012 announcement if you are interested.

The evening started with brief introductory talks about the prize, its history and its aims. This helped to set the scene by reminding us that we are living in an age where some of the big questions about life, the universe and everything are starting to be unravelled (or at least are being looked at in new and exciting ways).

From there we moved on to a panel discussion between the judges which focussed on practical questions. For example what is the first thing you do when 135 books turn up on your doorstep? Responses ranged from Christmas present style excitement to paralysing shock to a scientific, almost librarianly, instinct to put them into categories.

The Shortlist - (In alphabetical order. I will keep you in suspense about the winner unless you already know or sneakily scroll to the end.)

The core of the event was naturally all about the six short listed books. Each of the authors came onto the stage, told us a bit about their book and then read us some of their favourite bits. Each author was introduced by the judging panel's token media star, Robert Llewellyn (Yes, Kryten from Red Dwarf. I was surprised too.)

You can download the first chapter of each book for free from the Royal Society website. A webcast of the evening is also available.

Alex's Adventures in Numberland by Alex Bellos

Alex Bellos has previously written a travel book about his native Brazil. He told us that he approached this book in a similar way. As a maths graduate he saw himself as a native trying to explain the land of mathematics in a way that would educate and interest visitors from outside.

This has been published as 'Here's Looking at Euclid' in the US. During the Q and A session at the end there was some discussion about whether or not the Americans had a better title and why his publishers didn't think British people would get the joke.

Through the Language Glass: How Words Colour Your World by Guy Deutscher

Talking of titles someone pointed out that it was a strange coincidence that two of the titles were inspired by Lewis Carroll this year. This book is about the idea that the language we use shapes the way we perceive the world around us. If a concept doesn't exist in your language can you think it? The classic example is that some people from some isolated cultures perceive colour differently from the rest of us because their language refers to colour differently. Or tying in to the previous book our mental models of how mathematics works shape the way we perceive distance.

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

This is a book about the periodic table, the bit of school chemistry that everyone remembers doing. Well the periodic table and the explosions. Mostly the explosions. That might not sound like a great idea for a book but the premise is that Sam tried to find an interesting story about each elements in the periodic table. The example we heard featured a scientist using radioactive lead to check if his landlady was using leftovers in his evening meals.

The Wavewatcher's Companion by Gavin Pretor-Pinney

From the author of the Cloudspotter's Guide comes an attempt to see if his spotter's guide to everyday things that are actually quite complicated phenomena when you get into it is a formula that can be repeated. The consensus from our judges is that it definitely is. If you've ever watched waves crashing onto a beach and started to wonder about them then this is for you. But be warned that it starts there and ends up looking at things like the waves of information that make a community of social micro-organisms turn into a slug.

Massive: The Missing Particle That Sparked the Greatest Hunt in Science by Ian Sample

The 'missing particle' of the title is the elusive higgs boson. The particle which in theory is probably responsible for all of the mass in the universe. The problem is that it has never been detected. The hunt for the higgs boson is one of the big quests in science at the moment. It is one of the things (although I must emphasise only one of them) that the Large Hadron Collider was built to find. If we could confirm that this particle definitely exists than a lot of ideas that are very theoretical at the moment would start to fall into place.

I got the impression that a big strength of this book is that it looks at the human side of science. Ian was lucky enough to interview a lot of the people involved in the hunt including Higgs himself. A man who according to legend is almost as elusive as the particle he named (although this turns out to be not strictly fair). Talking to the scientists themselves helps Ian to give us their insiders' view of 'the greatest hunt in science'.

The Rough Guide to The Future by Jon Turney

Writing a guide to the future even a rough one is a brave thing to do. History has shown that most predictions are wrong. Jon dealt with this challenge by exploring ideas about the future and the key issues that look likely to shape the world of tomorrow. Issues ranging from environmental crisis to technologies that threaten / promise to move us into a post-human future. He also side-stepped the usual criticisms of futorology by asking a range of experts to tell him their greatest hope, worst fear and best bet for what's going to happen. The last one is what they think is most likely to actually happen. Of course they might all be wrong but it means the book includes a wide range of opinions and Jon avoids the charge of hubris. To be fair predicting the future isn't really the goal. The point of looking at ideas about the future and the issues that will shape it is to educate ourselves to play a part in shaping our collective future.

The Winner is...

Drumroll please. After giving us a taste of each book and a chance to ask the authors questions the session reached its cimax. The president of the royal society walked onto the stage with an envelope. After thanking everyone and making the expected but still true comments about the high standard of all the books he opened the envelope...

The winner was The Wavewatcher's Companion by Gavin Pretor-Pinney.

A proud moment for everyone who has ever spent time watching waves and wondering about them. Congratulations to Gavin and thank you to the Royal Society for an interesting evening.

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