Friday, November 18, 2011

Surprise prize

The Royal Society Winton Prize for science books was awarded last night. I have written a piece on it for Prospect’s blog. Here it is for convenience.
Part of the pleasure of the presentation of the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books on Thursday night was that it was happening at all. Having lost its corporate sponsor (Rhône-Poulenc, subsequently merged to Aventis) after 2006, the prize was nobly supported by the Royal Society alone for the past four years but looked increasingly in danger of folding. Now it has been rescued by the British investment firm Winton Capital Management, who have agreed to back it for five years. So popular science still has its Man Booker.

The winning title, Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Wavewatcher’s Companion (Bloomsbury), was a surprise. In both cover and content, it looks like a sequel to Pretor-Pinney’s previously successful The Cloudspotter’s Guide, but it won over the judges with what Richard Holmes, chair of the judging panel, called “old-fashioned charm and wit”. Like many of the best science books, it doesn’t at first seem to be about science at all, but is a celebration of the ubiquity of waves of all sorts, from sonar to football crowds.

‘Wit’ seems to have been a valuable feature. Holmes commented on how often humour was employed in the submitted books. That’s encouraging – not because science books have previously been dour, but because they have often had a tendency towards leaden adolescent humour of the “imagine finding that in your sandwich!” variety. This sort of thing wouldn’t have passed muster with the erudite Holmes, whose The Age of Wonder (2009 winner of the prize) was, among many other praiseworthy things, a model of the wry footnote.

But another issue bothered some of the attendees. As the six white male shortlisted authors sat on the stage, broadcaster Vivienne Parry asked “Where are all the girls?” (Tucked up in bed, one was tempted to reply, but you could see her point.) The (typically gender-balanced) judges confessed that this had been a serious concern, but one that they could do nothing about. It’s even worse when you look at the prize’s history: only one woman has ever won it (anthropologist Pat Shipman in 1997), and then as a co-author. Parry is herself one of the very few women to have been shortlisted.

A glib answer is that this just reflects the lack of women in science. But that isn’t the case for science journalism and publishing. It is mercifully free of the male-domination still evident in the lab: at least half of the editorial staff of Nature are women, and this is fairly representative. Plenty of female science writers and scientists have authored books. And the imbalance is all the more troubling when compared to the strong female showing in other non-fiction literary awards such as the Samuel Johnson. So “what’s that about?”, asked science journalist Ian Sample, also on the science book prize shortlist, in response to Parry’s question. No one seemed to know.

1 comment:

JimmyGiro said...

"A glib answer is that this just reflects the lack of women in science."

Yeah, like the lack of white 100m winners reflects the lack of white 100m runners in the Olympics!?

Similarly, it was a 'problem' for the Nazis, that so many Jews did well in science... any connection there?