And the Winners Are ... Award-Winning Science Books of 2009

Article excerpt

With no big television presence or golden statues, the awards given for outstanding science writing are certainly less well-known recognitions of achievement. However, several prestigious and sizable monetary awards honor science writing. This short review highlights the most recent winners of the major English language awards for outstanding popular science writing. These books, written for general readers, provide opportunities for nurturing science literacy and appreciation. I hope you will find a book here to enjoy, recommend, and possibly use in a future class.

Royal Society Prizes for Science Books

The prize awarded by the Royal Society, UK's National Academy of Science, is one of the best known and most prestigious of the awards given for popular science writing. Information about the prize and past winners is provided at http://royalsociety.org/science-books/the-prizes/.

General Prize Winner

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. Richard Holmes. 2008. Pantheon.

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My favorite parts of this book are the prologue and epilogue. I love the concept of "wonder" that Richard Holmes takes as a theme. Holmes places the Age of Wonder between the first world voyage of Captain Cook in 1768 and Darwin's voyage to the Galapagos in 1831. He notes: "The idea of the exploratory voyage, often lonely and perilous, is in one form or another a central and defining metaphor of Romantic science." The prologue also gives us "Romantic science created, or crystallized, several other crucial conceptions--or misconceptions--which are still with us. First, the dazzling idea of the solitary scientific 'genius,' thirsting and reckless for knowledge, for its own sake and perhaps at any cost. ... Closely connected with this is the idea of the 'Eureka moment,' the intuitive inspired instant of invention or discovery, for which no amount of preparation or preliminary analysis can really prepare." Although these introductory overview statements about the Romantic Age of Wonder are enticing, the following 500+ pages really read like pretty straight history. Richard Holmes has written many previous books and is widely recognized as an outstanding biographer of the Romantic Era. This book certainly adds to that reputation, based on the excellent reviews posted online. The Age of Wonder is indeed a very well-written description of an era, the context and environment in which scientists worked, and their place in their society. It is full of interesting information and glimmers of issues (women in science, animal rights, cultural conflicts in anthropological studies, etc.) that continue through today, but it is not really about the science. Holmes even notes this (again in the prologue): "The book remains a narrative, a piece of biographical storytelling. It tries to capture something of the inner life of science, its impact on the heart as well as on the mind."

I tried to like this book. The history is indeed fascinating in itself, but it really doesn't answer the call that Holmes himself put forth: "We need to understand how science is actually made; how scientists themselves think and feel and speculate." He can show us their own words and those of people around them, but the scientific context--where was the understanding on various issues and how did this person make the next connection--is not well developed. The passion for the science itself, the next steps after the "wonder" toward understanding, is the part that is missing and I think the part that people expect when they pick up "popular science" writing.

Previous Royal Society General Prize Winners

2008--Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. Mark Lynas. 2006. Fourth Estate.

2007--Stumbling on Happiness. Daniel Gilbert. 2006. Knopf.

2006--Electric Universe: How Electricity Switched on the Modern World. David Bodanis. …