The Royal Society Prizes for Science Books is an annual award for the previous year’s best general science writing and best science writing for children. The nominees and winners are decided by the Royal Society, the UK national academy of science. It is generally considered to be the most prestigious science writing award.
Below are the last 10 years winners, along with a brief description of each one. Enjoy.
10 Winners of the Royal Society for Science Books
1. A Short History of Nearly Everything Hardcover –
As previously mentioned in our 10 Easy To Read Books That Make You Smarter post, Bryson tries to do what most school textbooks never manage to do, explain the context of science in a way that is relevant to the average person. At the beginning of the book, he recalls an event from his childhood when he looked at a school text and saw a cross-section of our planet. He was transfixed by it, but noticed that the book just dryly presented the facts, but never really explained HOW science came to know this particular set of facts. That, he quite correctly points out, is the most interesting part. And that is story he sets out to tell in this book.
2. Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another – Philip Ball
Readers of Critical Mass by Philip Ball will learn many new concepts and ideas from a skilled science writer with a doctorate in physics. His book opens with brief historical account that weaves the political confusion that engulfed Britain in the seventeenth century into early developments of science, but it is with the work of Thomas Hobbes that the author is particularly concerned. Although others had imagined ideal societies such as Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia, and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis come to mind. Sensitive to charges of “arrogance”, Ball asserts that his work is “not an attempt to prescribe systems of control and governance, still less to bolster with scientific reasoning prejudices about how society ought to be run.”
3. Electric Universe: How Electricity Switched on the Modern World –
The author makes a few claims that I have never seen before, such as one that Morse, in inventing the telegraph, stole most of his ideas from Joseph Henry, and I’d be curious to see how much of this is generally accepted. But if so, it would certainly appear that Samuel Morse was overrated by history. The book covers both Morse and Henry, and also such well-known inventors as Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, often showing sides of them that we don’t see elsewhere. The book devotes a large amount of space to Alan Turing, who is obviously highly regarded by the author. It also covers much of the scientific side of the story, even giving a glimpse of quantum mechanics.
4. Stumbling on Happiness – Daniel Gilbert
I love a quote by Dr. Richard Feynman, the late Nobel Prize winning physicist: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool”. If you want to be happy, happy with your choices and the outcomes of your efforts you should buy and read this book to at least understand why you are pretty much hard-wired to break Dr. Feynman’s first principle while you are trying to do so.
Gilbert is wickedly funny at times as he describes the mechanisms that lead us to distort our thinking; our projections about what will bring about our future selves happiness. This is the kind of information (why we’re so deluded) I expected to get from the book. With penetrating insight and sparkling prose, Gilbert explains why we seem to know so little about the hearts and minds of the people we are about to become.
5. Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet –
By 2100 earth will warm between 1.4° and 5.8° C (2.52° to 10.44° F) according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Although this sounds like a sunny and pleasant upside to vacation weather forecasts, as “Six Degrees Our Future on a Hotter Planet” by Mark Lynas soberly notes, the consequences range from the inconvenient to the inconceivable as massive rockslides reshape the Alps, atoll nations across the Pacific are inundated, species extinction accelerates, and entire ecosystems collapse. The web of life – humanity’s safety net – will disappear, stranding us on an essentially alien planet.
6. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science – Richard Holmes
I have found the history of British science to be one of the best ways to study the intellectual history of the 19th century. This book, which focuses upon the period between Captain Cook’s first voyage in 1768 and Darwin’s Beagle journey in 1831,takes the story of British science back a bit earlier, and explains some of the important precursor developments to the later dazzling Victorian period. Along the way, the profession of scientific researcher emerged as well as some of our basic ideas about scientific progress.
7. Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution – Nick Lane
In this wonderful book, Lane (Power, Sex, Suicide), a biochemist at University College London, asks an intriguing and simple question: what were the great biological inventions that led to Earth as we know it. (He is quick to point out that by œinvention, he refers to nature’s own creativity, not to intelligent design.) Lane argues that there are 10 such inventions and explores the evolution of each. Not surprisingly, each of the 10—the origin of life, the creation of DNA, photosynthesis, the evolution of complex cells, sex, movement, sight, warm bloodedness, consciousness and death—is intricate, its origins swirling in significant controversy. Drawing on cutting-edge science, Lane does a masterful job of explaining the science of each, distinguishing what is fairly conclusively known and what is currently reasonable conjecture.
8. The Wavewatcher’s Companion – Gavin Pretor-Pinney
One bright February afternoon on a beach in Cornwall, GavinPretor-Pinney took a break from cloudspotting and started watching thewaves rolling into shore. Mesmerised, he wondered where they had comefrom, and decided to find out. He soon realised that waves don’t justappear on the ocean, they are everywhere around us, and our livesdepend on them.
One bright February afternoon on a beach in Cornwall, GavinPretor-Pinney took a break from cloudspotting and started watching thewaves rolling into shore. Mesmerised, he wondered where they had comefrom, and decided to find out. He soon realised that waves don’t justappear on the ocean, they are everywhere around us, and our livesdepend on them.From the rippling beats of our hearts, to the movement of food throughour digestive tracts and of signals across our brains, waves are thetransport systems of our bodies.
9. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood – James Gleick
James Gleick, a prominent journalist, biographer of scientists and explainer of physics has usefully turned his attention to the single most important phenomena of the twenty-first century, the study and quantification of information. Gleick provides biographical sketches of lesser known figures in the history of information such as Robert Caudrey compiler of the first known English dictionary and John F. Carrington chronicler of “The Talking Drums of Africa“; he (Gleick) gives fuller personal histories of Samuel F. Morse, Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace; Gleick reserves the most extensive biographical treatment for those who “mathematized” the phenomena of information: Claude Shannon and Alan Turing.
10. The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World – Sean Carroll
Many of us remember where we were during key world events; particle physicists would likely remember where they were on July 4, 2012. That was the day the Higgs boson was discovered at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva. By any measure it was one of the most momentous discoveries in physics, perhaps in all of science. But what exactly is the Higgs Boson? Why is it important? And how was it discovered? In this engaging and informative book Caltech physicist Sean Carroll sheds light on all these aspects of the Higgs discovery.
For more information on the Royal Society for Science Books Prize, check here.