These are the 12 titles and their synopses that were originally longlisted for the 2014 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books. We have covered some of these books over the last year and will cover the rest in the coming weeks. Let us know which book you think will win.
Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler by Philip Ball
The judges said: “An incredibly interesting look at the politics of science and the decisions all scientists have to make.”
Serving the Reich tells the story of physics under Hitler. While some scientists tried to create an Aryan physics that excluded any ‘Jewish ideas’, many others made compromises and concessions as they continued to work under the Nazi regime. Among them were three world-renowned physicists: Max Planck, pioneer of quantum theory, regarded it as his moral duty to carry on under the regime. Peter Debye, a Dutch physicist, rose to run the Reich’s most important research institute before leaving for the United States in 1940. Werner Heisenberg, discovered the Uncertainty Principle, and became the leading figure in Germany’s race for the atomic bomb. After the war most scientists in Germany maintained they had been apolitical or even resisted the regime: Debye claimed that he had gone to America to escape Nazi interference in his research; Heisenberg and others argued that they had deliberately delayed production of the atomic bomb.Mixing history, science and biography, Serving the Reich is a gripping exploration of moral choices under a totalitarian regime. Here are human dilemmas, failures to take responsibility, three lives caught between the idealistic goals of science and a tyrannical ideology.
Seven Elements That Have Changed The World: Iron, Carbon, Gold, Silver, Uranium, Titanium, Silicon by John Browne
The judges said: “An inspired look at seven very special elements which are essential to the modern world. It’s a captivating read.”
Humans have put the Earth’s resources to extraordinary use. Carbon provides us with heat, light and mobility at the flick of a switch. From silver came photography, the preservation of memories, and a task which for centuries was confined to painters, sketchers and our imaginations. Silver in turn was eventually replaced by silicon, an element which enables us to communicate and transmit information across the globe in an instant. But our use of the Earth’s resources is not always for the benefit of humankind. Our relationship with the elements is one of great ambivalence. Uranium produces both productive nuclear power and destructive atomic bombs; iron is the bloody weapon of war, but also the economic tool of peace; our desire for alluring gold is the foundation of global trade, but has also led to the death of millions. This book vividly describes how seven key elements have shaped the world around us – for good and for bad. Seven Elements takes you on an adventure of human passion, ingenuity and discovery. This journey is far from over: we continue to find surprising new uses for these seven elements. Discover how titanium pervades modern consumer society; how natural gas is transforming the global energy sector; and how an innovative new form of carbon could be starting a technological revolution. Seven Elements is a unique mix of science, history and politics, interwoven with the author’s extensive personal and professional experience.
Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson
The judges said: “Full of lots of new messages, Carlson makes you stop and think about the practicalities of science, industry and invention.”
Nikola Tesla was a major contributor to the electrical revolution that transformed daily life at the turn of the twentieth century. His inventions, patents, and theoretical work formed the basis of modern AC electricity, and contributed to the development of radio and television. Like his competitor Thomas Edison, Tesla was one of America’s first celebrity scientists, enjoying the company of New York high society and dazzling the likes of Mark Twain with his electrical demonstrations. An astute self-promoter and gifted showman, he cultivated a public image of the eccentric genius. Even at the end of his life when he was living in poverty, Tesla still attracted reporters to his annual birthday interview, regaling them with claims that he had invented a particle-beam weapon capable of bringing down enemy aircraft. Plenty of biographies glamorize Tesla and his eccentricities, but until now none has carefully examined what, how, and why he invented. In this groundbreaking book, W. Bernard Carlson demystifies the legendary inventor, placing him within the cultural and technological context of his time, and focusing on his inventions themselves as well as the creation and maintenance of his celebrity. Drawing on original documents from Tesla’s private and public life, Carlson shows how he was an “idealist” inventor who sought the perfect experimental realization of a great idea or principle, and who skillfully sold his inventions to the public through mythmaking and illusion. This major biography sheds new light on Tesla’s visionary approach to invention and the business strategies behind his most important technological breakthroughs.
What a Wonderful World: One Man’s Attempt to Explain the Big Stuff by Marcus Chown
The judges said: “Chown is a terrific science writer. His book is a tour de force that covers an incredible range of topics.”
Why do we breathe? What is money? How does the brain work? Why did life invent sex? Does time really exist? How does capitalism work – or not, as the case may be? Where do mountains come from? How do computers work? How did humans get to dominate the Earth? Why is there something rather than nothing? In “What a Wonderful World”, Marcus Chown, bestselling author of “Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You” and the Solar System app, uses his vast scientific knowledge and deep understanding of extremely complex processes to answer simple questions about the workings of our everyday lives. Lucid, witty and hugely entertaining, it explains the basics of our essential existence, stopping along the way to show us why the Atlantic is widening by a thumbs’ length each year, how money permits trade to time travel why the crucial advantage humans had over Neanderthals was sewing and why we are all living in a giant hologram.
Dice World: Science and Life in a Random Universe by Brian Clegg
The judges said: “A fantastic look at the importance of randomness, full of interesting and philosophical ideas while still remaining open and accessible.”
As troubling as we pattern-seeking humans may find it, modern science has repeatedly shown us that randomness is the underlying heartbeat of nature. In Dice World, acclaimed science writer Brian Clegg takes readers on an incredible trip around our random universe, uncovering the truths and lies behind probability and statistics, explaining how chaotic intervention is behind every great success in business, and demonstrating the possibilities quantum mechanics has given us for creating unbreakable ciphers and undergoing teleportation. He explores how the ‘clockwork universe’ imagined by Newton, in which everything could be predicted given enough data, was disproved bit by bit, to be supplanted by chaos theory and quantum physics. Clegg reveals a world in which not only is accurate forecasting often impossible but probability is the only way for us to understand the fundamental nature of things. Forget the clockwork universe. Welcome to Dice World, a unique portrait of a startlingly complex cosmos, from the bizarre microscopic world of the quantum to the unfathomable mechanics of planetary movements, where very little is as it seems…
The Compatibility Gene by Daniel M Davis
The judges said: “Davis wins you over from the start with touch points you can relate to and engaging descriptions. Dedication and a life spent in pursuit of his subject are evident on every page.”
The Compatibility Gene is a scientific adventure story set in a new field of genetic discovery – that of the crucial genes that define our relationships, our health and our individuality. Here, Daniel M Davis, one of the leading scientists in the field, tells us the story of its grounbreaking developments that have the potential to change us all. We each possess a similar set of around 25,000 human genes. Yet a tiny, distinctive cluster of these genes plays a disproportionately large part in how our bodies work. These few genes, argues Daniel M. Davis, hold the key to who we are as individuals and our relationship to the world: how we combat disease, how our brains are wired, how attractive we are, even how likely we are to reproduce. In The Compatibility Gene, one of our foremost immunologists tells the remarkable history of these genes’ discovery and the unlocking of their secrets. From the British scientific pioneers who, during the Second World War, struggled to understand the mysteries of transplants and grafts, to the Swiss zoologist who devised an entirely new method of assessing potential couples’ compatibility based on the smell of worn T-shirts, Davis traces what is nothing less than a scientific revolution in our understanding of the human body: a global adventure spanning some sixty years. Davis shows how the compatibility gene is radically transforming our knowledge of the way our bodies work – and is having profound consequences for medical research and ethics. Looking to the future, he considers the startling possibilities of what these wondrous discoveries might mean for you and me. Who am I? What makes me different from everyone else? Daniel Davis recounts the remarkable science that has answered one version of these questions.
My Brief History: A Memoir by Stephen Hawking
The judges said: “Hawking writes incredibly poetically, conjuring evocative images in your mind. My Brief History takes you on a journey of adversities and shows you what has made Hawking one of the most respected theoretical physicists in the world today.”
Stephen Hawking has dazzled readers worldwide with a string of bestsellers exploring the mysteries of the universe. Now, for the first time, perhaps the most brilliant cosmologist of our age turns his gaze inward for a revealing look at his own life and intellectual evolution. My Brief History recounts Stephen Hawking’s improbable journey, from his postwar London boyhood to his years of international acclaim and celebrity. Lavishly illustrated with rarely seen photographs, this concise, witty, and candid account introduces readers to a Hawking rarely glimpsed in previous books: the inquisitive schoolboy whose classmates nicknamed him Einstein; the jokester who once placed a bet with a colleague over the existence of a particular black hole; and the young husband and father struggling to gain a foothold in the world of physics and cosmology. Writing with characteristic humility and humor, Hawking opens up about the challenges that confronted him following his diagnosis of ALS at age twenty-one. Tracing his development as a thinker, he explains how the prospect of an early death urged him onward through numerous intellectual breakthroughs, and talks about the genesis of his masterpiece A Brief History of Time—one of the iconic books of the twentieth century. Clear-eyed, intimate, and wise, My Brief History opens a window for the rest of us into Hawking’s personal cosmos.
The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity by Pedro G. Ferreira
The judges said: “Very lucidly written, Ferreira succeeds in a explaining some very tricky concepts. A treasure trove of information.”
How did one elegant theory incite a scientific revolution? Physicists have been exploring, debating, and questioning the general theory of relativity ever since Albert Einstein first presented it in 1915. Their work has uncovered a number of the universe’s more surprising secrets, and many believe further wonders remain hidden within the theory’s tangle of equations, waiting to be exposed. In this sweeping narrative of science and culture, astrophysicist Pedro Ferreira brings general relativity to life through the story of the brilliant physicists, mathematicians, and astronomers who have taken up its challenge. For these scientists, the theory has been both a treasure trove and an enigma, fueling a century of intellectual struggle and triumph.. Einstein’s theory, which explains the relationships among gravity, space, and time, is possibly the most perfect intellectual achievement of modern physics, yet studying it has always been a controversial endeavor. Relativists were the target of persecution in Hitler’s Germany, hounded in Stalin’s Russia, and disdained in 1950s America. Even today, PhD students are warned that specializing in general relativity will make them unemployable. Despite these pitfalls, general relativity has flourished, delivering key insights into our understanding of the origin of time and the evolution of all the stars and galaxies in the cosmos. Its adherents have revealed what lies at the farthest reaches of the universe, shed light on the smallest scales of existence, and explained how the fabric of reality emerges. Dark matter, dark energy, black holes, and string theory are all progeny of Einstein’s theory. We are in the midst of a momentous transformation in modern physics. As scientists look farther and more clearly into space than ever before, The Perfect Theory reveals the greater relevance of general relativity, showing us where it started, where it has led, and where it can still take us.
The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery by George Johnson
The judges said: “A scrupulously researched, well written book that makes excellent use of case studies.”
When the woman he loved was diagnosed with a metastatic cancer, science writer George Johnson embarked on a journey to learn everything he could about the disease and the people who dedicate their lives to understanding and combating it. What he discovered is a revolution under way—an explosion of new ideas about what cancer really is and where it comes from. In a provocative and intellectually vibrant exploration, he takes us on an adventure through the history and recent advances of cancer research that will challenge everything you thought you knew about the disease. Deftly excavating and illuminating decades of investigation and analysis, he reveals what we know and don’t know about cancer, showing why a cure remains such a slippery concept. We follow him as he combs through the realms of epidemiology, clinical trials, laboratory experiments, and scientific hypotheses—rooted in every discipline from evolutionary biology to game theory and physics. Cogently extracting fact from a towering canon of myth and hype, he describes tumors that evolve like alien creatures inside the body, paleo-oncologists who uncover petrified tumors clinging to the skeletons of dinosaurs and ancient human ancestors, and the surprising reversals in science’s comprehension of the causes of cancer, with the foods we eat and environmental toxins playing a lesser role. Perhaps most fascinating of all is how cancer borrows natural processes involved in the healing of a wound or the unfolding of a human embryo and turns them, jujitsu-like, against the body. Throughout his pursuit, Johnson clarifies the human experience of cancer with elegiac grace, bearing witness to the punishing gauntlet of consultations, surgeries, targeted therapies, and other treatments. He finds compassion, solace, and community among a vast network of patients and professionals committed to the fight and wrestles to comprehend the cruel randomness cancer metes out in his own family. For anyone whose life has been affected by cancer and has found themselves asking why?, this book provides a new understanding. In good company with the works of Atul Gawande, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Abraham Verghese, The Cancer Chronicles is endlessly surprising and as radiant in its prose as it is authoritative in its eye-opening science.
Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live by Marlene Zuk
The judges said: “Paleofantasy presents an interesting thesis that feels fresh in a very accessible way. The book represents an argument against the accepted wisdom of our time.”
We evolved to eat berries rather than bagels, to live in mud huts rather than condos, to sprint barefoot rather than play football—or did we? Are our bodies and brains truly at odds with modern life? Although it may seem as though we have barely had time to shed our hunter-gatherer legacy, biologist Marlene Zuk reveals that the story is not so simple. Popular theories about how our ancestors lived—and why we should emulate them—are often based on speculation, not scientific evidence. Armed with a razor-sharp wit and brilliant, eye-opening research, Zuk takes us to the cutting edge of biology to show that evolution can work much faster than was previously realized, meaning that we are not biologically the same as our caveman ancestors. Contrary to what the glossy magazines would have us believe, we do not enjoy potato chips because they crunch just like the insects our forebears snacked on. And women don’t go into shoe-shopping frenzies because their prehistoric foremothers gathered resources for their clans. As Zuk compellingly argues, such beliefs incorrectly assume that we’re stuck—finished evolving—and have been for tens of thousands of years. She draws on fascinating evidence that examines everything from adults’ ability to drink milk to the texture of our ear wax to show that we’ve actually never stopped evolving. Our nostalgic visions of an ideal evolutionary past in which we ate, lived, and reproduced as we were “meant to” fail to recognize that we were never perfectly suited to our environment. Evolution is about change, and every organism is full of trade-offs. From debunking the caveman diet to unraveling gender stereotypes, Zuk delivers an engrossing analysis of widespread paleofantasies and the scientific evidence that undermines them, all the while broadening our understanding of our origins and what they can really tell us about our present and our future.
Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World by Mark Miodownik
The judges said: “A contemporary, sideways look at everyday stuff. Miodownik writes with a passionate ability to explain each subject. It’s packed full of excellent stories and is the only science book out there where the author gets stabbed on the London Underground!”
Why is glass see-through? What makes elastic stretchy? How come concrete pours? Why does a paperclip bend? Why does any material look and behave the way it does? From the towering skyscrapers of our cities to the most ordinary objects in our homes, Stuff Matters tells enthralling stories that explain the science and history of materials we take entirely for granted, while introducing some of humankind’s most ingenious and improbable inventions. From the tea-cup to the jet engine, the silicon chip to the paper clip, the plastic in our appliances to the elastic in our underpants, world-leading materials scientist Mark Miodownik reveals the miracles of engineering and ingenuity that permeate every aspect of our lives. Along the way, he introduces materials that can heal themselves, implants that become living bone, the explosive that made the movie business, materials that might one day save the world – and others that already have. Mark Miodownik recently appeared in The Times’ inaugural list of the 100 most influential scientists in the UK. He is Professor of Materials and Society at UCL and presenter of several BBC television documentaries, including How it Works and The Genius of Invention, as well as appearing as scientist-in-residence on Dara O Briain’s Science Club. In 2010, he gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. He is Director of the UCL Institute of Making which is home to a materials library containing some of the most wondrous matter on earth, and has collaborated to make interactive events with many museums, such as Tate Modern, the Hayward Gallery and Wellcome Collection.
Gulp: Adventures of the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
The judges said: “An entertaining and disarming read which delves into a usually unspeakable topic with great humour and great insight.”
The alimentary canal — the much-maligned tube from mouth to rear — is as taboo, in its way, as the cadavers in Stiff, and as surreal as the universe of zero gravity explored in Packing for Mars. In Gulp we meet the scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks —or has the courage —to ask. How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? Can wine tasters really tell a $10 bottle from a $100 bottle? Why is crunchy food so appealing? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis? We go on location to a pet food taste-test lab, a fecal transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal. Like all of Roach’s books, Gulp is as much about human beings as it is about human bodies.