Science & Technology

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Breaking down the best of popular science books

Breaking down the best of popular science books

The Royal Society’s annual international Winton Prize celebrates quality science books published for the general public that translate the authors’ love for science into narratives and concepts that make this love accessible for all. Here, we break down the nominees and winner of the prestigious £25,000 award.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach (reviewed by Tai Wei Guo)

Gulp answers all the questions you never had about mastication, digestion, and excretion, through interviews with people with esoteric jobs like professional taste-tasters and saliva scientists. The science is honest and spot-on: “pyrophosphates,” explains the chapter on pet food, “are cat crack.” Some other eminently useful tidbits include the psychology of spit, the history of burst stomachs, the nutrition of organ meat, and the pathology of parasites from sushi that eat your intestines out. Roach makes this all so engaging that you forget how gross it is. If you do not love biology already, this book will make sure you do.

Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler by Philip Ball (reviewed by Tai Wei Guo)

Despite its subtitle, Serving the Reich is not so much an epic as it is Hannah Arendt with physics. Indeed, only a quarter of the book is spent explaining twentieth century physics. The rest is the history and biography of how the greatest physicists—exemplified by Planck, Debye, and Heisenberg—like everyone else, largely went along with the Reich in an attempt to get on with their lives and works. By attempting to be apolitical, these scientists were highly political. While the concept is interesting, the theme of antipathy makes for a slow read and the physics 101 makes it sluggish.

The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity by Pedro G. Ferreira (reviewed by Tai Wei Guo)

Do not be intimidated by Ferreira’s astronomical list of credentials, which start with Oxford and CERN. The Perfect Theory is a smooth and relaxing read even if your knowledge of physics stretches no further than gravity and apple trees. It is a biography of general relativity, starting with its birth, Einstein’s formulation, and ending with the vast legacy it has left in its ripe old age. The narrative of scientists duking it out over a theory is as engaging and detailed as fiction, and it is difficult to even notice when Ferreira begins smoothly teaching physics to the reader. A fantastic read for scientists and non-scientists alike.

The Cancer Chronicles by George Johnson (reviewed by Katherine Courtis)

George Johnson guides us through his journey for answers when the woman he loves is diagnosed with a metastatic cancer. Johnson wades through the volumes of information and scientific studies available about cancer and distinguishes truth from myth in order to deliver a very informative, helpful and, at times, touching read. Highly recommended for anyone who has ever been touched by cancer or just anyone who has ever wondered whether their mobile phone or burnt toast really could lead to cancer.

Seven Elements That Have Changed the World by John Browne (reviewed by Katherine Courtis)

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about iron, carbon, gold, silver, uranium, titanium and silicon then this is the book for you. Seven Elements That Have Changed The World gives an insight into these seven elements beyond just their chemical properties by describing the impact they have had on manufacturing and modern society. Lord Browne’s own experience in industry – as chairman of BP – gives a unique perspective throughout. This book, however, does not have as much of a broad appeal as some of the others on the shortlist.

And the winner:

Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik (reviewed by Katherine Courtis)

Stuff Matters takes a look at materials and explains with fascinating insight their stories, their science and why they matter. Midiodownick examines some high-tech, futuristic materials e.g. silica aerogels that weigh barely more than air but the most interesting parts are where he talks about the everyday materials we take for granted: paper, porcelain, steel, plastics and even chocolate. Did you know that without the plastic ‘celluloid’ it would be impossible to make films? Throughout, Midiowick’s enthusiasm for the materials he writes about really shines through and readers will struggle to not have a newfound respect for ‘stuff’.

Featured image credit: Royal Society

Tai Wei Guo and Katherine Courtis