In Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer, a science journalist who regularly misplaces his keys, can’t remember his girlfriend’s birthday and forgets why he’s just opened the refrigerator door, takes up a challenge to train for and enter the US Memory Championship.
In The Hidden Reality, physicist Brian Greene elegantly explores the science of parallel universes and suggests the universe we live in could just be a holographic projection from the real universe. In The Viral Storm, virologist Nathan Wolfe travels into the central African jungle in search of primate viruses to take back to his San Francisco lab. These are just three of the six books short-listed for this year’s Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, an award that celebrates “accessible, interesting and compelling accounts of the world around us or inside us”.
There are things in these books to get scared about. “Microbial threats will grow in the coming years in their ability to plague us, kill people, destroy regional economies and threaten humanity in ways more severe than the worst imaginable volcanoes, hurricanes or earthquakes,” says Wolfe. And there are things to feel good about. In The Better Angels of our Nature, psychologist Stephen Pinker sets out strong evidence for the progressive decline of violence at all levels – familial, tribal and societal. “It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence,” he says.
But this year’s winning book, described by the New York Times as being “illuminating and sexily theoretical”, is a history of information – from talking drums to Morse Code to Wikipedia – by American journalist, and previous Pulitzer Prize finalist, James Gleick. The Information was praised by the judges as “an ambitious and insightful book that takes us, with verve and fizz, on a journey from African drums to computers, throwing in generous helpings of evidence and examples along the way. It is one of those very rare books that provide a completely new framework for understanding the world around us.”
My vote, however, goes to Lone Frank’s My Beautiful Genome, in which Denmark’s top science writer looks to her DNA for an explanation of her familial tendency towards mental illness and alcoholism. Her riveting exploration of behavioural genetics, that “once controversial field that asks the cheeky questions about how tiny differences in individual genes can explain how people think, react and act differently”, is deeply funny and often very personal. In her quest to find out how DNA makes us who we are, Frank investigates her own DNA, interviews people who work with DNA, including James Watson and Spencer Wells, and goes to the first international consumer genetics show. But it’s not just Frank’s sharp humour and personal revelations that I liked.
In many years as a science writer, I have always found biochemistry the most difficult science to come to terms with. In a few cleverly worded pages in the first chapter, Frank – who has a PhD in neurobiology – made the arcane relationship between DNA, RNA, genes and proteins suddenly clear to me for the first time. Bless. As for New Zealand’s best science book, you’ll have to wait until 2013. The Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize is awarded biennially, with books published in 2011 and 2012 eligible for next year’s prize.
WINTON PRIZE SHORT LIST
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer (Allen Lane); My Beautiful Genome by Lone Frank (Oneworld); The Information by James Gleick (Fourth Estate); The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene (Allen Lane); The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (Allen Lane); The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe (Allen Lane).