Winton Royal

The Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books award ceremony took place on Monday night. The event is open to anyone so I went along – I like to feel part of the great science communications endeavour. But I had had a busy day stuffed with meetings so was unable to get there as early as I would have liked. The doors opened at 6pm but by ten past six there was still quite a queue and it sounded as though they were struggling to fit everyone in. Just as I got to the head of the queue they announced that the main hall was full so we would have to go into the overspill room. At least I got a seat in the front row of that room but I felt disconnected from the excitement of the event.

I felt an urge to Tweet so I got my phone out and started poking about to see what people were tweeting. The Royal Society twitter account posted a tweet using the hashtag #scibooks so I started tweeting using that hashtag. It did seem a bit unspecific, I admit, and I was surprised that the twitterstream seemed a bit quiet.  It was only when the whole event was over that I discovered everyone else was using the hashtag #WintonPrize2013. Bah! Wrong room, wrong hashtag – I was definitely not on the right wavelength tonight. [Memo to self:  get there early next time and do your homework on the hashtag].

Things got better once the event kicked off. Dara O’Briain was the Master of Ceremonies and had his verbal overdrive chip installed, talking umpteen to the dozen. He introduced the event then  introduced the first author (a short video clip was played to announce the book) as they took the podium to give a short address and read an excerpt from the book. After this Dara and the author had a five-minute discussion about the book. This process was repeated for each of the six authors on the shortlist, and followed by a general discussion between all of them and a few questions from the audience.

Dara conducted the proceedings with great skill and good humour, ribbing one of the authors about a joke that they had pinched from him, and commenting that another (author of a book on memory) had clearly forgotten they had agreed that he, Dara, would be wearing that shirt – as we realised that they were indeed wearing shirts with identical floral designs.

I have not read any of the books so my comments below are based purely on what I learned about them at the awards event, plus my personal prejudices. In best reality TV show style, I judged the authors by their performance on the night, rather than their entire writing performance.

Tim Birkhead gave a good start to the evening as he talked dirty about birds and senses. I remember reading his pieces in the Times Higher where he always seemed a thoughtful and likeable character. Tonight he read a purple passage from his book, Bird Sense.  The extract dealt with the question of whether birds feel emotion and sexual pleasure. Noting that in one species of bird copulation takes less than a second, while males of another species have a false penis, he then described a bird that seemed to undergo a very sensual and erotic experience in his lab. In the subsequent discussion his depth of knowledge about birds and his love of the subject shone through. I decided I must read this book, and thought it was a potential winner.

Sean Carroll had the harder task of selling us quantum physics. His book The Particle at the End of the Universe about the Higgs boson had no cute birds nor sexy talk. Tonight he focused on the entity’s name, or rather its nickname – the ‘God particle’. The nickname has always seemed a bit daft to me and is apparently hated by physicists, but loved by journalists. Now, I must admit that my interest in physics is only slight (blame my old O-level physics teacher for putting me off it) and I didn’t particularly feel that I wanted to read this book. My bad.

Enrico Coen intrigued me. I have purchased a couple of his books for the Library, including this latest one, and they seemed to attract some interest. I recall that a favourable review of his shortlisted book, Cells to Civilizations, in the Times Higher first drew my attention to it.  The reviewer comments that Coen is attempting “a lofty and ambitious project, so I [was] somewhat sceptical at first”. When he spoke about his book Coen came across as a Renaissance man with a great breadth of interest and reference, and a philosophical undertow (or should that be overtone?).  I expect that I would enjoy the book, but I fear it may be excessively intellectual and tire out my poor little brain. Intensely thought-provoking but not the kind of book you want to read in the toilet. In the discussion session I warmed to him; he had some nice turns of phrase, noting that “plant neuroscience is a very small field”. Later he commented that science was full of analogies so science writers should not be afraid to use analogies to explain things. But I suspect the book may not have a very broad appeal, and I have a hunch that his climb up the ladder of abstraction may not lead anywhere fruitful.

Charles Fernyhough‘s book was about memory: Pieces of Light: The new science of memory.  He referenced the work of Elizabeth Loftus (as described in this recent article in The Atlantic) on how memories can become contaminated. He explained that memory is something constructed, and is not just like a video camera that we can replay exactly. Last year I attended Tim Bliss’ Croonian lecture about the mechanics of memory, and was left feeling that the process of forming memories seemed very fragile. Fernyhough confirmed this to be the case and explained the phenomenon of imagination inflation, by which if you imagine something you are then more likely to remember it as an experience you have had. He noted that advertisers make use of this, putting colourful imagery into their adverts to try and seed our memories. This all sounded very intriguing and he left me wanting to know (and read) more about it.

At first I couldn’t quite make out Caspar Henderson, nor quite see what his book, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, was about. It sounded like a nightmare to classify (in the library catalogue sense). Was it science? or art? or history? or mythology? As he talked about his list of beings, all of them real, I was drawn in. He read out a list of extraordinary names given to diatoms – I thought Drosophilists were bad but these were really bizarre. I decided that I liked his quirky way of thinking, and his broad frame of reference. When asked about Homo sapiens he said that he thought music was one of our defining traits. The book sounds like an entertaining read.

Callum Roberts was the final author in this parade of scientific writing talent (all of it male, I noted). His book, Ocean of Life, explains how the oceans are changing. The excerpt he read reflected on the changes that a bowhead whale has seen in its lifetime – which might be up to 200 years. During that time it would have seen (and heard) a huge growth in shipping traffic, and witnessed a dramatic fall in the bowhead population followed by a partial recovery. The ocean is a very different place now than it was 200 years ago. Roberts said that he tried to avoid making the book too preachy, but I got the feeling that there might be an element of sermonising in it, and that puts me off wanting to read it.

So, I mulled over the shortlist and decided that on balance I would award the prize to Caspar Henderson. He made me want to read his book, even though I still had only a very sketchy idea what it was about. Sadly, I was not in charge of that decision.

Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, came onto the platform and made a great show of opening the envelope very slowly, in his best Miss World X-factor judge manner. The tension was, er, unbearable.

Finally, he announced that Sean Carroll was the winner, for his book on the Higgs boson, by a unanimous decision of the judges.

So, that put me in my place. Maybe next year, as well as getting there early and checking what the hashtag is, I should also try reading some of the shortlisted books in advance so that I can make an informed decision about the books.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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3 Responses to Winton Royal

  1. John Gilbey says:

    “Philosophical undertow”… Thanks, Frank – that’s an image I shall treasure! 🙂

  2. cromercrox says:

    Thanks for that great summary Frank!

  3. Frank says:

    Thanks John and Henry.

    Fingers crossed that you’ll be up there next year Henry!

    I meant to include a link to Alice Henchley’s account of the evening, on Nature blogs.

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