12 Books Nominated for the 2013 Royal Society Science Book Prize

RS Winton Prize for Sci logo.448x576These are the 12 titles and their synopses that were originally longlisted for the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. I hope to cover ALL these books over the coming days.

The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body by Frances Ashcroft

We are all familiar with the idea that machines are powered by electricity, but perhaps not so aware that this is also true for ourselves. The Spark of Life is a spectacular account of the body electric, showing how, from before conception to the last breath we draw, electrical signals in our cells are essential to everything we think and do. These signals are produced by some amazing proteins that sit at the forefront of current scientific research – the ion channels. They are found in every cell in Earth and they govern every aspect of our lives, from consciousness to sexual attraction, fighting infection, our ability to see and hear, and the beating of our hearts. Ion channels are truly the ‘spark of life’. Award-winning physiologist Frances Ashcroft weaves real-life stories with the latest scientific findings to explain the fundamental role of ion channels in our bodies. What happens when you have a heart attack? Why does an electric eel not shock itself? Can someone really die of fright? Why does Viagra turn the world blue? How do cocaine, LSD and morphine work? Why do chilli peppers taste hot? How do vampire bats sense their prey? Was Mary Shelley right when she inferred that electricity is the ‘Spark of Life? Frances Ashcroft explains all this and more with wit and clarity. She introduces a cast of extraordinary personalities whose work has charted the links between molecule and mind over the centuries. She recounts the scientific detective stories involved in the development of our ideas about animal electricity, and shows how these are intimately entwined with our understanding of electricity itself. And she describes how the latest advances have led to the identification, and in some cases the cure, of a new class of disease. Anyone who has ever wondered about what makes us human will find this book a revelation.

Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead

What is it like to be a swift, flying at over one hundred kilometres an hour? Or a kiwi, plodding flightlessly among the humid undergrowth in the pitch dark of a New Zealand night? And what is going on inside the head of a nightingale as it sings, and how does its brain improvise?Bird Sense addresses questions like these and many more, by describing the senses of birds that enable them to interpret their environment and to interact with each other. Our affinity for birds is often said to be the result of shared senses–vision and hearing–but how exactly do their senses compare with our own? And what about a bird’s sense of taste, or smell, or touch, or the ability to detect the earth’s magnetic field? Or the extraordinary ability of desert birds to detect rain hundreds of kilometres away–how do they do it? Bird Sense is based on a conviction that we have consistently underestimated what goes on in a bird’s head. Our understanding of bird behaviour is simultaneously informed and constrained by the way we watch and study them. By drawing attention to the way these frameworks both facilitate and inhibit discovery, Birkhead identifies ways we can escape from them to explore new horizons in bird behaviour. There has never been a popular book about the senses of birds. No one has previously looked at how birds interpret the world or the way the behaviour of birds is shaped by all their senses. A lifetime spent studying birds has provided Tim Birkhead with a wealth of observation and a unique understanding of birds and their behaviour that is firmly grounded in science.

Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change that Shape Life by Enrico Coen

Cells to Civilizations is the first unified account of how life transforms itself–from the production of bacteria to the emergence of complex civilizations. What are the connections between evolving microbes, an egg that develops into an infant, and a child who learns to walk and talk? Award-winning scientist Enrico Coen synthesizes the growth of living systems and creative processes, and he reveals that the four great life transformations–evolution, development, learning, and human culture–while typically understood separately, actually all revolve around shared core principles and manifest the same fundamental recipe. Coen blends provocative discussion, the latest scientific research, and colorful examples to demonstrate the links between these critical stages in the history of life. Coen tells a story rich with genes, embryos, neurons, and fascinating discoveries. He examines the development of the zebra, the adaptations of seaweed, the cave paintings of Lascaux, and the formulations of Alan Turing. He explores how dogs make predictions, how weeds tell the time of day, and how our brains distinguish a Modigliani from a Rembrandt. Locating commonalities in important findings, Coen gives readers a deeper understanding of key transformations and provides a bold portrait for how science both frames and is framed by human culture. A compelling investigation into the relationships between our biological past and cultural progress, Cells to Civilizations presents a remarkable story of living change.

The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll (WINNER)

The Higgs boson is the particle that more than six thousand scientists have been looking for using the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and highest energy particle accelerator, which lies in a tunnel 17 miles in circumference, as deep as 575 feet beneath the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva. It took ten years to build and this search has now cost over $9 billion and required the collaboration of engineers from more than one hundred countries. What is so special about the Higgs boson? We didn’t really know for sure if anything at the subatomic level had any mass at all until we found it. The fact is, while we have now essentially solved the mass puzzle, there are things we didn’t predict and possibilities we haven’t yet dreamed. A doorway is opening into the mind boggling, somewhat frightening world of dark matter. We only discovered the electron just over a hundred years ago and considering where that took us—from nuclear energy to quantum computing–the inventions that will result from the Higgs discovery will be world-changing. The Particle at the End of the Universe not only explains the importance of the Higgs boson but also the Large Hadron Collider project itself. Projects this big don’t happen without a certain amount of conniving, dealing, and occasional skullduggery— and Sean Carroll explores it all. This is an irresistible story (including characters now set to win the Nobel Prize among other glories) about the greatest scientific achievement of our time.

Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory by Charles Fernyhough

Memory is an essential part of who we are. But what are memories, and how are they created? A new consensus is emerging among cognitive scientists: rather than possessing a particular memory from our past, like a snapshot, we construct it anew each time we are called upon to remember. Remembering is an act of narrative as much as it is the product of a neurological process. Pieces of Light illuminates this theory through a collection of human stories, each illustrating a facet of memory’s complex synergy of cognitive and neurological functions. Drawing on case studies, personal experience and the latest research, Charles Fernyhough delves into the memories of the very young and very old, and explores how amnesia and trauma can affect how we view the past. Exquisitely written and meticulously researched, Pieces of Light blends science and literature, the ordinary and the extraordinary, to illuminate the way we remember and forget.

The Story of Earth by Robert Hazen

Earth evolves. From first atom to molecule, mineral to magma, granite crust to single cell to verdant living landscape, ours is a planet constantly in flux. In this radical new approach to Earth’s biography, senior Carnegie Institution researcher and national bestselling author Robert M. Hazen reveals how the co-evolution of the geosphere and biosphere—of rocks and living matter—has shaped our planet into the only one of its kind in the Solar System, if not the entire cosmos. With an astrobiologist’s imagination, a historian’s perspective, and a naturalist’s passion for the ground beneath our feet, Hazen explains how changes on an atomic level translate into dramatic shifts in Earth’s makeup over its 4.567 billion year existence. He calls upon a flurry of recent discoveries to portray our planet’s many iterations in vivid detail—from its fast-rotating infancy when the Sun rose every five hours and the Moon filled 250 times more sky than it does now, to its sea-bathed youth before the first continents arose; from the Great Oxidation Event that turned the land red, to the globe-altering volcanism that may have been the true killer of the dinosaurs. Through Hazen’s theory of “co-evolution,” we learn how reactions between organic molecules and rock crystals may have generated Earth’s first organisms, which in turn are responsible for more than two-thirds of the mineral varieties on the planet—thousands of different kinds of crystals that could not exist in a nonliving world. The Story of Earth is also the story of the pioneering men and women behind the sciences. Readers will meet black-market meteorite hawkers of the Sahara Desert, the gun-toting Feds who guarded the Apollo missions’ lunar dust, and the World War II Navy officer whose super-pressurized “bomb”—recycled from military hardware—first simulated the molten rock of Earth’s mantle. As a mentor to a new generation of scientists, Hazen introduces the intrepid young explorers whose dispatches from Earth’s harshest landscapes will revolutionize geology. Celebrated by the New York Times for writing “with wonderful clarity about science . . . that effortlessly teaches as it zips along,” Hazen proves a brilliant and entertaining guide on this grand tour of our planet inside and out. Lucid, controversial, and intellectually bracing, The Story of Earth is popular science of the highest order.

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson

From Axolotl to Zebrafish, meet a world of barely imagined beings: real creatures that are often stranger and more astonishing than anything dreamt in the pages of a medieval bestiary. Ranging from the depths of the ocean to the most arid corners of the earth, Caspar Henderson captures the beauty and bizarreness of the many living forms we thought we knew and some we could never have contemplated, and invites us to better imagine the world around us. An extraordinary, vivid combination of natural history, spiritual primer and philosophical meditation, The Book of Barely Imagined Beings is a mind-expanding, wonder-inducing read.

Life’s Ratchet by Peter Hoffmann

Life is an enduring mystery. Yet, science tells us that living beings are merely sophisticated structures of lifeless molecules. If this view is correct, where do the seemingly purposeful motions of cells and organisms originate? In Life’s Ratchet, physicist Peter M. Hoffmann locates the answer to this age-old question at the nanoscale. Below the calm, ordered exterior of a living organism lies microscopic chaos, or what Hoffmann calls the molecular storm—specialized molecules immersed in a whirlwind of colliding water molecules. Our cells are filled with molecular machines, which, like tiny ratchets, transform random motion into ordered activity, and create the “purpose” that is the hallmark of life. Tiny electrical motors turn electrical voltage into motion, nanoscale factories custom-build other molecular machines, and mechanical machines twist, untwist, separate and package strands of DNA. The cell is like a city—an unfathomable, complex collection of molecular workers working together to create something greater than themselves. Life, Hoffman argues, emerges from the random motions of atoms filtered through these sophisticated structures of our evolved machinery. We are agglomerations of interacting nanoscale machines more amazing than anything in science fiction. Rather than relying on some mysterious “life force” to drive them—as people believed for centuries—life’s ratchets harness instead the second law of thermodynamics and the disorder of the molecular storm. Grounded in Hoffmann’s own cutting-edge research, Life’s Ratchet reveals the incredible findings of modern nanotechnology to tell the story of how the noisy world of atoms gives rise to life itself.

Air: The Restless Shaper of the World by William Bryant Logan

Air sustains the living. Every creature breathes to live, exchanging and changing the atmosphere. Water and dust spin and rise, make clouds and fall again, fertilizing the dirt. Twenty thousand fungal spores and half a million bacteria travel in a square foot of summer air. The chemical sense of aphids, the ultraviolet sight of swifts, a newborn’s awareness of its mother’s breast—all take place in the medium of air. Ignorance of the air is costly. The artist Eva Hesse died of inhaling her fiberglass medium. Thousands were sickened after 9/11 by supposedly “safe” air. The African Sahel suffers drought in part because we fill the air with industrial dusts. With the passionate narrative style and wide-ranging erudition that have made William Bryant Logan’s work a touchstone for nature lovers and environmentalists, Air is—like the contents of a bag of seaborne dust that Darwin collected aboard the Beagle—a treasure trove of discovery.

The Cosmic Tourist by Sir Patrick Moore, Brian May and Chris Lintott

Take your seats for an out-of-this-word tour through the Cosmos! Brian May, Patrick Moore, and Chris Lintott—authors of Bang!—fly us from Earth to the farthest-out galaxies. Along the way, we stop and gaze at 100 amazing sights, from asteroids to zodiacal dust. And each of our three tour guides has a special expertise and passion that they bring to their very personal explanations of what we see: Patrick is a lunar specialist; Brian is the leading authority on dust in our solar system, and Chris researches the formation of stars and galaxies. Extraordinary images present the universe as seen through the eyes of the biggest and best telescopes on Earth and in space, and occasionally from the backyards of expert amateur observers.

Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts

In this revelatory book, Callum Roberts uses his lifetime’s experience working with the oceans to show why they are the most mysterious places on earth, their depths still largely unexplored. In The Ocean of Life we get a panoramic tour beneath the seas: Why do currents circulate the way do? Where exactly do they go? How has the chemistry of the oceans changed? How polluted are we making them? Above all, Roberts reveals the richness of their life, and how it has altered over the centuries. The oceans are now under unprecedented threat. Not only does Roberts show how we are fishing our oceans to extinction, crucially, he explains how this directly affects our lives on land. Ninety-five percent of habitable space on earth lies in the oceans, and marine plants produce half the world’s oxygen; the oceans themselves absorb vast quantities of carbon dioxide. The life they support is now in the balance. The Ocean of Life should galvanise debate worldwide. Roberts shows how we can arrest and reverse the damage we are doing. Tantalisingly, it is within our grasp to restore the life of the oceans. There is still time.

The Life of a Leaf by Steven Vogel

In its essence, science is a way of looking at and thinking about the world. In The Life of a Leaf, Steven Vogel illuminates this approach, using the humble leaf as a model. Whether plant or person, every organism must contend with its immediate physical environment, a world that both limits what organisms can do and offers innumerable opportunities for evolving fascinating ways of challenging those limits. Here, Vogel explains these interactions, examining through the example of the leaf the extraordinary designs that enable life to adapt to its physical world. In Vogel’s account, the leaf serves as a biological everyman, an ordinary and ubiquitous living thing that nonetheless speaks volumes about our environment as well as its own. Thus in exploring the leaf’s world, Vogel simultaneously explores our own.