And the Winners Are ... Award-Winning Science Books of 2008

Article excerpt


Most people are probably familiar with major literary awards such as the Nobel Prize for Literature, Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, Booker Prizes, and the Caldecott and Newbery awards for children's literature. Unfortunately, few of the books that are even considered for these awards are about science topics. Most of the awards focus on fiction, biography, or history. Even when a general non-fiction category is available, science writers are rarely recognized.

There are several prestigious and valuable awards entirely focused on science writing, however. This short review highlights the most recent winners of the major English language awards for outstanding science writing directed toward a public audience. As noted in JCST recently (Shibley et al. 2008), popular science writing "can help transform a classroom into a more learner-centered environment." Keeping up with award-winning science writing is one way to compile a list of possible titles for the classroom. As you'll see, these books are a very eclectic group and range widely in topics: from climate change and physics biography to evolution and complex considerations of consciousness.

I hope you will find a book to enjoy, recommend, and possibly use in a future class from this group of award-winners.

Royal Society Prizes for Science Books

The Royal Society, UK's National Academy of Science, awards two prizes annually, the best popular science book aimed at adult readers (General Prize) and the best children's science book (Junior Prize). The prizes have been awarded since 1988 and are considered the most prestigious of the awards given for science writing. Information about the prizes, past winners, and an intriguing list of scientists' and authors' favorite science books is provided at sciencebooks.

General Prize Winner

Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. Mark Lynas. 2006. Fourth Estate. Originally published in the UK in 2006, Six Degrees was published in the United States in 2008 by National Geographic Press. Six Degrees is a very entertaining and disturbing disaster story, set in the future, with six different possible endings. The title comes from the IPCC Assessment Report (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007) anticipating up to six degrees Celsius of global warming. Lynas takes current research on climate change and divides up the possible scenarios, giving a chapter to changes that can be expected with each increasing degree of increase in average temperature. He grabs the reader's attention at the very beginning with his discussion of Hurricane Katrina and what he consider s "the first climate refugees." One could argue that human history and prehistory records of migration suggest that Katrina was hardly the "first" climate event to cause displacement. However, it makes a great hook to draw in the reader.


Well documented, with 40 pages of notes from recent articles and reports in major science journals, this book of possible futures for the Earth is fascinating reading. Lynas explains the apparent contradiction that a degree increase in average temperature translates not only into expected higher temperatures and rainfall, but in other areas can bring cooler climates and drought, with concomitant problems. Famine due to drought in major agricultural areas is highlighted. Lynas gives the expected obligatory cautioning that we all have a role in deciding the actual ending. The final chapter, "Choosing Our Future," is not, however, a political diatribe. It is a very balanced discussion with a good summary table of carbon dioxide targets, possible government actions, and how these correlate with predicted temperature rise. There is enough substance in this final chapter to drive many classroom discussions on policy. While Lynas clearly urges us to fight against the continuation of current practices, he also gives a reasoned presentation about how various changes might or might not actually benefit the Earth. …