The long-list for the Royal Society Winton Book Prize was announced last week which, if the publishers blurbs listed in the write-up in the Guardian are to be believed, represent a real cornucopia of delightful reading. As it happens, I am in the middle of reading one of the long-listed books at the moment (Life’s Ratchet by Peter Hoffman) and have already ticked another one off the list (Tim Birkhead‘s Bird Sense). I am keen to get my hands on a third book on the list, Frances Ashcroft‘s book The Spark of Life too, having read her previous Life at the Extremes some time ago and enjoyed it a lot. Additionally, Frances and I share a lot in common: from being contemporaries at Girton College all those years ago, to being elected to the Royal Society the same year and having both won one of the L’Oreal/UNESCO For Women in Science Laureates.
The Guardian write-up I mention above sparked some comments on Twitter. I think it was Stephen Curry who started it off, remarking that, despite the judges being predominantly female, there was a distinct lack of women on the long-list. In fact, Frances Ashcroft is the only woman on the 18-strong long-list. This list will be whittled down to a shortlist of 6 in the autumn before the final winner is announced. The odds must be that there will be a male winner at the end of the day, as has happened for every one of the last 24 years as far as I can see, having cast my eye over all the previous winners of the Book Prize (which has gone under various names since it was first set up in 1989), with the exception of a joint husband-and-wife team which won. A 2011 article considered this theme too and, at that point, claimed that there had only been 9 women overall on the 144 authors on the shortlists (6 each year).
GrrlScientist, who had written the Guardian piece and who had been on one of the reading panels, entered the Twitter-fray saying that she simply didn’t notice the gender of the author as she read – no more had I noticed the gender distribution when reading the list of nominated books. But will every reader behave like that? Perhaps there is a bias by gender about which submitted proposals are accepted for publication (in which case, blame the publishers). Or maybe the publishers are negligent in submitting books written by women for the prize (in which case, also blame the publishers). It’s impossible to tell. Uta Frith, chair of this year’s judging panel, said (again on Twitter) that there were 18 books submitted which had been written by women out of a total of 112. At that rate the women appear to have been under-represented on the long-list: if simple odds had been at play 2 female-authored books might have been expected to feature. That of course immediately shows us that we are back in the land of fluctuations and noise, where one book more or less makes a big difference: we shouldn’t draw any strong conclusions from the low numbers of women on the list.
While this discussion was going on over Twitter, I ventured to suggest that maybe the Royal Society’s Young People’s's book prize would have a different distribution of female authors. My instinct – or perhaps lazy stereotyping further influenced by the knowledge that Frances Balkwill had won this prize some years ago – told me that might be likely. I have no statistics on the long- or short-list gender distribution, but out of the 27 winners on the Royal Society website I can identify 9 with female authors, although a number of the books had more than one author listed and the number of women represented is actually higher (some, no doubt, illustrators). So I am assuming this bears out my suspicion that women are more likely to write books (or at least books which get published and/or submitted for consideration) for children than adults. Of course, as with Frances Ashcroft, not to mention other stand-out writers such as Rebecca Skloot (she of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks fame) or Lisa Randall, whose book Knocking on Heaven’s Door I reviewed a couple of years ago , there are some stunning female popular science writers out there. I hope that soon one of them will be accorded the accolade of the Winton Prize; I am sure it is just a matter of time, but it does no harm to pause a moment and wonder why this hasn’t happened so far.
My last post was about EO Wilson’s Letters to a Young Scientist. In it he said something (well many things, but let me just pick up on one) that I thought was odd at the time and, reflecting on the (extremely limited number of) books I have read on the long-list emphasises that he wasn’t entirely accurate in what he said. To quote
Few scientists write memoirs, and among those who do, even fewer are willing disclose the emotions, urges, idols and teachers that brought them into their scientific careers….a leathery, just-the -facts style confines most personal accounts of scientific discovery, and a good story often comes out reticent and dull.
Is this really true? It stuck out to me as not describing many of the books I’ve read and, looking at the Winton list, it certainly isn’t true of either the Birkhead or Hoffman books I alluded to above. Unfortunately I’ve lent my copy of The Sense of Birds (as well as its even more impressive predecessor The Wisdom of Birds, which I discussed a while back) to family members so I can’t quote from them. However, I have a distinct memory of Birkhead commenting on his lifelong affection for guillemots, the interesting places he has had to go to study them and other species, overall conveying a strong sense of personal identity along with his motivations (‘urges’, to use White’s word if you prefer) and his emotions on returning to some much-studied, much-loved seabird colony.
As I’m still in the middle of reading Life’s Ratchet, it is easier for me to pull out a statement to contradict that paragraph of Wilson’s above. Hoffman, it turns out, was a PhD student of John Pethica‘s. John is currently the Physical Secretary of the Royal Society, in which role I interact with him quite a bit, but we go back a long way: once upon a time he and I were students together in the Cambridge physics class. Of John, his teacher, the sort of person Wilson claims doesn’t get a mention in books, Hoffman says:
John is an easygoing person but an exacting scientist. When I visited Oxford for my interview, an envelope with instructions was waiting for me at the hotel. John had written “Dr Peter Hoffman, Esq” on the envelope. I didn’t know that I was an Esquire, but it showed John’s respect for everybody, even a lowly postdoc looking for a job. When my wife and I finally arrived a few months later, it was the beginning of summer. John typically disappeared for extended periods, only to reappear with a bagful of new idea. After John’s return from his mysterious summer travels, I got into one of the typical – as I soon realised – conversations with him. These conversations always involved new ideas, connections and recent publications. Listening to John I would often be reduced to nodding and saying “aha, yeah ,mmmh” only to scramble back to the office to look up the papers he was talking about.
I think this paragraph provides an excellent lightning pen-sketch of the man, bringing in a little of the personal including how Hoffman interacted with his supervisor. Nor do I think such stories are that unusual. Briefly I considered whether this might be a new trend for the personal to appear in science books, possibly something not reflected in books of the past that Wilson would have grown up with. A moment’s thought of the other book I’m currently reading (a bad habit of mine, to have more than one book on the go simultaneously I know) showed me this is wrong. The book I’m reading is a composite republication of Island Farm (Published 1943 and Island Years (1940) by Sir Frank Fraser Darling, one of the early practitioners of ecology, who made the study of animals (red deer and grey seals notably) in their West Highland habitats his own. These two books, these memoirs, are written in an immensely personal style, with great lyricism and enthusiasm, demonstrating his abiding love for the islands he made his own (in all senses). Not for him any leathery, dry style. If you have any interest in natural history and/or the Western Isles, I’d strongly recommend these classic texts.
No new trend to get personal in science books and memoirs then. And some more fascinating books on that Winton long-list into which I aim to get my teeth soon.