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'The Best Science Book Ever' at the RI

Jennifer Rohn 22 October 2006

Outstanding: multiple criteria make for difficult choices

Works of science-related fiction should be as well read and respected as their non-fiction counterparts

What makes a popular science book endure? Is it the sheer quality of the writing? Is it the force of the ideas, even if they turn out to be wrong? Or is it the timelessness that stems from writing about the process of doing science, instead of about the scientific facts such processes generate, facts which almost without exception have an unavoidable shelf-life?

Last Thursday, a group of experts got together with the general public at the behest of The Royal Institution of Great Britain to debate these issues and to choose the best science book ever (read our initial description of the event here). A panel comprised of former Guardian science editor Tim Radford, evolutionary biologist Armand Marie Leroi and Macmillan science book editor Sara Abdulla opened the event by plugging for their nominations, which included two runners up and an overall favorite each.

The first speaker, Tim Radford, began with a lament that science books are usually hidden away in bookshops, “in the basement behind ‘Mind and Body’ – a genre that gives me the creeps”. And then he produced a disclaimer that the other panelists were to echo: it had not been possible for him to pick the three best science books; there have been so many over the generations, and greatness varies with the criteria one applies. So rather arbitrarily, he went for books he’d read multiple times that never failed to give him pleasure.

Radford placed Jim Watson’s autobiographical The Double Helix in his top three. “You can read this to find out how science is done,” he explained. “Watson was fantastically dismissive about the great scientific figures around him. It’s science with a human face.” In second place was Norman Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon. Mailer was trained as an aeronautic engineer, Radford said, and the book, about the Apollo program, contains the world’s best description of how it is that a rocket can fly.

His all-time favorite, however, was The Periodic Table, a series of essays and stories by a chemist and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi. The book, he said, does exactly what a good science book should: “It pinions my awareness of the solidity of the world around me.”

Armand Leroi admitted that his choices were also quirky. In third place was Kunstformer der Natur by Ernst H.P.A. Haeckel, chosen for the glorious full-color pictures illustrating symmetry in the forms of various organisms. Haeckel, Leroi explained, interpreted Darwin for the German science community so passionately that these ideas took root there long before they did in Britain. In second place, Leroi chose Peter Medawar’s Pluto’s Republic – an astonishing treatise of rationality against pseudoscience, most especially against Freudian theory.

Leroi’s overall favorite, though, was King Solomon’s Ring, written by the father of animal behavior, Konrad Lorenz of geese-imprinting fame. “This book shows simple and beautiful science of a sort that is practically impossible to do anymore,” he noted, saying it invoked the childlike wonder of the essence of science, and that for this reason it was a good book for children as well as adults. Leroi urged the audience not to judge the book harshly because its author had manifested Nazi sympathies: “Scientists may be good or evil, but that doesn’t matter to the science.”

The final panelist, Sara Abdulla, confessed that she’d gone “way off-piste” from the event instructions by nominating three works of fiction (much to’s approval), saying she felt passionately that works of science-related fiction should be as well read and respected as their non-fiction counterparts. In third place, she chose Bertolt Brecht’s classic play Galileo (read our review here). Galileo’s speech about sunspots in the second act, she noted, was the “best summary of the scientific method ever published”. In second place, she nominated her favorite ‘lab lit’ novel, As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem, for overall research community atmosphere.

And her top spot went to another play, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (read our review here). “The first time I saw it, it pinned me to my seat,” she said. She also noted that Arcadia was a direct foil to all those terribly written popular science books out there. “As an editor,” she said, “I see the world through a subbing lens; there’s a constant red pen in my head. But Arcadia is the only thing I’ve read that I wouldn’t change a word of.”

Before the final vote, the event’s organizer Jon Turney, of Imperial College London’s Science Communication Group, polled the audience for a wildcard nomination to supplement the three top choices of the panel. As the microphone roamed around the room, we also heard plugs for several other books including Darwin’s Origin of Species (Leroi’s response: “Nobody ever reads it – the first chapter is about pigeons") and Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (one audience member said he hated it but still had been deeply impressed by its “sheer force”).

Dawkins’ classic was made the fourth contender, but the vast majority of the audience voted for The Periodic Table. Nobody left the room feeling as if the best science book ever had unequivocally been identified, or that such a feat was even possible, but to judge by the number of people who headed off to local South Kensington pubs to carry on the debate, it had at least given everyone something to think about.