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Scientifically speaking, what makes a good read?

22 January 2007

The Royal Society, the UK national academy of science, today (Monday 22 January 2007) launched the search for the best popular science books of the last year by asking key figures from the world of science and literature about their favourite page-turners.

Top scientists, authors, journalists and an astronaut chose science books, written for a lay audience, on a range of subjects including cosmology, mathematics and evolution.

Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, said: "Good science writing can bring new ideas to life and help us to understand what is already known. Popular science books have helped inspire many people to choose a career in science, as well as entertaining and stimulating many others. The Royal Society Prizes for Science Books aim to promote and encourage excellent science writing science is part of our culture, and the best science writing can achieve genuine literary value."

The scientist and environmentalist Professor James Lovelock says that his decision to spend a lifetime in science was confirmed by the popular writings of the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, including On being the right size, "especially the lively account of swallowing ammonium chloride until 'his liver fizzed'".

Award-winning novelist Margaret Drabble says: "My favourite popular science book of all time is Elaine Morgan's The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, which makes some controversial but extremely attractive claims about human evolution and our human love of water and the sea."

The British Astronaut Piers Sellers chose as his favourite, a book called Disturbing the Universe a scientific autobiography by the physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson. Sellers says, "This was one of the first books that helped me understand what scientists really do from day to day, and how what they discover influences society. He does not shy away from pointing out some of the moral dilemmas and responsibilities facing scientists&He proposes a delightful vision of how humans might spread out across the galaxy in one of many possible futures he has considered".

Kate Mosse, best selling author of Labyrinth and co-founder of the Orange Prize for Fiction picks as her favourite Right Hand, Left Hand by Chris McManus. She says: "Everything is a story - how things are invented and why; the real-life people behind the world changing science; the discovery of, say, a new star or the naming of a new equation - these are just as gripping as the fastest thriller, the raciest adventure novel, if written well."

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, President for Research at the University of Manchester and neuroscientist says that Janna Levin's How the Universe got its spots, "makes cosmology sound like the most fascinating subject imaginable."

Anne Fine, award winning author of the book that was turned into the Hollywood blockbuster Mrs Doubtfire and former Children's Laureate says: "Is it because I'm what my granny used to call 'past the first bloom of youth' that I found Sherwin B. Nuland's How we die so fascinating? The author boils Webster's 'ten thousand several doors/For men to take their exits' down to the few basic ways in which our systems fail us. It's compassionate, informative, and, above all, riveting. And surprisingly in a weird way   almost a comfort. " 

Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford and the author and journalist Simon Singh both picked A Mathematician's Apology by GH Hardy a mathematician's defence of mathematics as their science favourite book.

Johnny Ball, TV personality and presenter of shows including Think of a number', chose The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski. Nick Ross, broadcaster and journalist chose The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Dr Brian Cox, physicist and science expert on This Morning' chose Cosmos by Carl Sagan. Author and journalist Brenda Maddox chose Bryan Sykes' The Seven Daughters of Eve. Author and epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta chose A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

The Royal Society Books Prizes are in their 19th year and are the world's most prestigious award for popular science writing. They are designed to encourage the reading, writing and publication of high quality accessible science books for adults and children. Each year a General Prize is awarded to the author of the best science books for adults, while a Junior Prize goes to the author of the best children's science book.

Previous winners of the Royal Society Prizes for Science Books include A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, Electric Universe, How Electricity Switched on the Modern World by David Bodanis and The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking. Winners of the Junior Prize include What makes me, me by Robert Winston and Really Rotten Experiments by Nick Arnold and Tony De Saulles.

The winners of the prizes receive £10,000 and the authors of the short listed books receive £1000.  The winners will be announced at an awards ceremony at the Royal Society on 15 May.

The Royal Society manages the Royal Prizes for Science Books.The 2007 Prizes are funded by the Society with support from the Aventis Foundation, a German charitable trust.