Science and experience both tell us that it may become harder to learn as we get older. On the grounds that it’s never too late to learn, I was thinking about science books overnight. Which is the best? Could it be The Selfish Gene? Or perhaps The Periodic Table? Maybe The Emperor of All Maladies? Or Factfulness?
So I thought a web search would help remind me of some that I have read. Where better to start than the annual Royal Society Prizes for Science Books?
Imagine my horror when I read the lists of shortlisted books since 2000 to learn that I’ve read only 5% of them. And worse, I hadn’t read any of the listed winners from the start of the competition between 1988 and 2000. It seems that I’m 95% less informed on science that I had realised.
- 2020 The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson I happened to buy earlier this week. The 2020 winner isn’t yet announced.
- 2019 Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez won the annual prize and remains beside me, on my desk ready to be read.
- 2017 To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell was brilliant but not judged the best that year.
- 2012 Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer is on my desk ready to be read though it didn’t win either.
- 2009 The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes was an amazing read and it was book of the year. I only read it a few months ago, coming to my attention by recommendation from a fellow walker.
- 2005 The Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey didn’t win but it was a great read.
- 2004 A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson did win that year and deservedly so.
So what about some of the science books I’ve read since 1988 that are not on any of these lists? These few that I can quickly recall are still in mind because they changed how I think. I consider them as oversights or perhaps they’ve missed out based on qualification rules (dates of publication, too populist etc).
- 2020 Until The End of Time by Brian Greene.
- 2017 From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds by Daniel C Dennett.
- 2016 Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil.
- 2013 The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success by Kevin Dutton.
- 2011 Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman.
- 2010 Here on Earth by Tim Flannery.
- 2010 The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
- 2006 Reading the Rocks: The Autobiography of 1996 Shortlisted The Faber Book of Science John Carey Earth by Marcia Bjornerud.
- 1997 Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh.
- 1996 The Faber Book of Science by John Carey.
- 1995 Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel.
- 1993 The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner.
There are more but lists are boring. I should be making my choice but you already know the answer from the opening photo. So, please, spare time for my sharing the memory of an influence that’s relevant forty years after the reading:
- 1974 The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas.
- ‘We haven’t yet learned how to stay human when assembled in masses.’
- ‘Given any new technology for transmitting information, we seem bound to use it for great quantities of small talk.’
It turns out that the Royal Institution of Great Britain ran a poll in 2006. And I have read all four of their final shortlist. I know this because I’d seen the list in the 2007 Schott’s Almanac that inhabits a small room in our home. So I read them all in the first few months after I retired.
- 1993 Arcadia by Tom Stoppard, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this for the first time,
- 1976 The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, second go, just as good as forty years ago,
- 1975 The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, perhaps all the better for the sense of familiarity, having read it before,
- 1949 King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz wasn’t quite as engaging or exciting as it was when I was a teenager but hey, that’s a relative assessment by comparison to mighty competition – it’s still brilliant.
I have no hesitation in agreeing with the RIGB winner, The Periodic Table. It’s a book of short stories that transcends both science and literature, elevating the humanity of an individual to something special. Don’t we all have rights? Rather than thinking that to be human is to have rights, perhaps we should function as is if having rights is what makes us human?
Among the books published since 2006 I could argue pre-eminence for the brilliant biography, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
However, a simple book about maths is also a prime contender for my vote of the best science book I’ve read:
- 2018 Factfulness by Hans Rosling a must-read for humanity whose perspective is distorted by instincts.
A friend once depressed us all at a dinner party. He pointed out that we’re probably limited in the books we can read to seventy years of active reading no more than two books per week. He said we ought to choose our 7280 titles very carefully. May I suggest to you that you won’t go far wrong with any of the 25 listed on this page.
I wonder what jewels might be among your other 7255?
By the way, I was hugely impressed with the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on BBC2 from 1973-1979. Prepared for ‘Young People’, Laithwaite and Sagan have stayed in my memory since 1974 and 1977 respectively. I was delighted to learn that the whole series is now online, 1968 to 2019. Well worth another look.