2014 Royal Society Science Book Prize Shortlist Announced

RS Winton Prize for Sci logo.448x576The Royal Society Winton Book Prize Longlist was nominated back in July. This list consisted of some 12 great science books that we’ve been featuring over the last few months. The Royal Society have a blog post about their short list, the list, which is now 6 books, is supplied below.

The prize will be announced on the 10th of November 2014, where the winner will receive £2,500. In the meantime check out the shortlist and some of the interviews we’ve conducted with the authors.

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.

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.

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.