Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Truly wonderful

It’s official, then: the Royal Society Science Book Prize goes to The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes. The decision was announced yesterday, and the Guardian is apparently going to put online a podcast of the press conference at which my fellow judges and some of the shortlisted authors discussed science books and science writing in general. I almost felt sorry for the other candidates being up against a book as good as Richard’s: it was a wonderful shortlist, but The Age of Wonder left us all awestruck in its erudition, imagination and – despite what you might imagine from the subject and the size of the book – its readability. It is a glorious read, with something to enjoy on every page (and don’t skip the footnotes!). I was slightly nervous that the other judges might deem it too ‘historical’ to count as a science book, but happily they had no such qualms. The book looks at several strands of science that emerged in the early nineteenth century, all of which allied themselves with the Romantic spirit of wonder, awe and the sublime: for example, the geographical journeys of discovery by Joseph Banks, Mungo Park and others, William Herschel’s telescopic observations, Humphrey Davy’s chemical inventiveness, and the origins of hot-air ballooning. One of the very special attributes of this book is that it makes science sound breathtakingly exciting – not only then, but still.

Both Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and Jo Marchant’s Decoding the Heavens have received well deserved praise elsewhere (here and here) (as the other two Brits, they were the other shortlisted authors present at the ceremony). But I’d like to put in a shout for all the other three candidates too, and especially for Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish, which we all agreed was exquisite, making a tricky subject (evo-devo) very accessible and engaging. The memory of being confronted with three boxes stuffed full of books is now fading, and I’m left feeling lucky to have been involved in this process.


William said...

Three boxes?! I'm jealous! How long of a period were you given to digest them all?

I'm a fan of the Royal Society Science Book Prize (and its predecessors) and make an effort to stay current with it - it's where I discovered Critical Mass, in fact.

Philip Ball said...

William - I'm not sure you'd be so jealous if you saw some of them, frankly. But it's true that there were some goodies outside of the longlist. I guess we had a month or so for the first pass, which made for some late-night reading...