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What do scientists want for Christmas?

24 September 2007

The Royal Society, the UK national academy of science asked figures from the world of science and literature what would be on their Christmas wish list this year, today (Monday 24 December 2007).

Top scientists' and authors' Christmas requests included more involvement in manned spaced activities, machines that could turn rubbish into power and popular science books such as Stumbling on Happiness, the winner of this year's Royal Society Prize for Science Books.

Sir David Read, Vice President and Biological Secretary of the Royal Society said he would ask Father Christmas for a book like he always does and this year it would be Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle: The Journals That Revealed Nature's Grand Plan by Michael Kerrigan.

Sir David said: "As we approach Charles Darwin's 200th Anniversary and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his world-changing volume The Origin of Species, the journey about which I would most like to be reminded is the voyage of the Beagle. This was the epic trip during which Darwin began, on the basis of the evidence before him, to formulate his ideas about evolution and natural selection."

Colin Pillinger, Professor of Planetary Sciences at the Open University and Fellow of the Royal Society asked for Werner von Braun's book The Mars project, tickets to Jeff Wayne's musical War of the Worlds and for the, "UK Government to commit to a real involvement in manned space activities starting with a return to the moon to create a permanent base".

Pillinger said: "I was involved in the Apollo programme and know just how much it inspired the World. I had always believed the UK would be amongst the first on the Moon. If I could only have one present I would have this one."

Lord Robert May, professor of Zoology at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London and former President of the Royal Society would like Georgina Ferry's biography of Max Perutz and the Government to give more money for research council budgets.

Lord May said: "Upping the ante on Santa, I would like to see the current Government put its money where its mouth is, and re-visit the recently-announced cuts in Research Council's budgets. There are surely less damaging cuts to be made elsewhere in public spending, which has bloated in recent years."

Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, President for Research at the University of Manchester, neuroscientist and Fellow of the Royal Society would like Janna Levin's How the Universe got its spots as it, "makes cosmology sound like the most fascinating subject imaginable" and a chemistry set "like the one I got when I was six and made me excited about science". Rothwell would also ask Santa if she could travel back in time to watch Michael Faraday's original Christmas lectures.

Professor Daniel Gilbert, of Harvard University and Winner of the Royal Society Books Prize 2007 would like a copy of Warped Passages by Lisa Randall, a pre-CBS 1958 Fender Stratocaster and an espresso machine.

Maggie Gee, novelist, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and former judge of the Royal Society books prize Christmas requests include, "an observatory anywhere in the world with a telescope through which I could look at the stars, and see things I will never otherwise see", a National Geographic hand-held Global Positioning System and Wild Amazon by Nick Gordon.

The Christmas wishes of Eleanor Updale, award winning children's writer and historian of science are Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, "a machine that could sit in my home and silently transform all our rubbish into power" and a, "TV remote control with massive buttons and clear symbols that won't rub off with an onboard translating tool that turns instruction booklets into plain English."

Professor Chris Stringer FRS, of the Natural History Museum, one of Britain's foremost experts on human origins and shortlisted for the Royal Society Books Prize 2007 asked for Planet Earth: The Photographs by Alastair Fothergill, Postcards from Mars: The First Photographer on the Red Planet by Jim Bell, a complete Neanderthal skeleton and tickets to see West Ham in the cup final.

NOTES FOR EDITORS

1. The Royal Society is an independent academy promoting the natural and applied sciences. Founded in 1660, the Society has three roles, as the UK academy of science, as a learned Society, and as a funding agency. It responds to individual demand with selection by merit, not by field. As we prepare for our 350th anniversary in 2010, we are working to achieve five strategic priorities to:

* Invest in future scientific leaders and in innovation

* Influence policymaking with the best scientific advice

* Invigorate science and mathematics education

* Increase access to the best science internationally

* Inspire an interest in the joy, wonder and fulfilment of scientific discovery

2. Full answers are at the end of Notes to Editors

3. The Royal Society Books Prizes are in their 20th 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 in June 2008.

Full answers

Sir David Read

I always ask for a book at Christmas and I particularly enjoy travelogues-books that take me away to exotic but real places, at the same time enabling the world to be seen in a new light. As we approach Charles Darwin's 200th Anniversary and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his world-changing volume 'The Origin of Species', the journey about which I would most like to be reminded is 'The Voyage of the Beagle'. This was the epic trip during which Darwin began, on the basis of the evidence before him, to formulate his ideas about evolution and natural selection. Hence my request to Father (or Mother!) Christmas- Charles Darwin's 'Voyage of the Beagle: The Journals That Revealed Nature's Grand Plan' by Michael Kerrigan. At c £10 in hardback it has the other advantage that it should not break Santa's bank account!

Professor Collin Pillinger

A copy of Werner von Braun's book "the Mars project". (How the rocket pioneer proposed to put humans on Mars, written the 1940/50s). I could get this Tickets to Jeff Wayne's musical "War of the Worlds" at O2 on December 22. This is based on H.G Wells book (still the best ever science fiction story) and although Wayne's is a musical he has kept the story line as HG wrote it, not transported it to USA (even though Jeff is an American). His production is getting more and more adventurous and I would love to see it. Tickets are all sold out so not much hope unless I brazenly ring up jeff wayne and invite myself. (I have met him a couple of times and interviewed him for THES). Now comes the real wishful thinking. I would like the UK government to commit to a real involvement in manned space activities starting with a return to the moon to create a permanent base. I was involved in the Apollo programme and know just how much it inspired the World. I had always believed the UK would be amongst the first on the Moon (see book Journey into Space by Charles Chilton). The Nasa administrator, Mike Griffin, is here in UK at the moment seeking UK to join NASA in a full partnership. He said at a meeting last night he wants a full partnership not UK to turn up in 2020 saying they would now like a British astronaut on a flight. In my dreams we commit now to sharing in this adventure and it goes ahead in time for Michael Foale (i.e. someone with joint UK/US citizenship) is first Commander of the permanent base on the Moon. If I can only have only one present I'll have the last one. NB Even I am not so unrealistic as to believe asking the UK government to pay for a Beagle 3 would get me anywhere except committed to an Institution for the insane.

Lord Robert May

Let me start modestly: Georgina Ferry's biography of Max Perutz. Having just read a borrowed copy, I find this book fascinating, partly as an account of a great research scientist and "citizen scientist", but even more for its insights into the stresses and satisfactions of a life in science. Second, upping the ante on Santa, I would like to see the current Government put its money where its mouth is, and re-visit the recently-announced cuts in Research Council's budgets. There is a general rumour that these cuts owe more to lack of attention than to any considered and deliberate judgment. Whatever the cause, they make little sense. There are surely less damaging cuts to be made elsewhere in public spending, which has bloated in recent years (public spending as a percentage of GDP up almost 10%). And, in contrast with many spending increases elsewhere, the Research Councils demonstrably give value for money. Third, and far and away most ambitiously, I would like the meeting of Heads of States in Bali to produce and about time too a substantial and meaningful agreement to address the still-increasing inputs of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We are already committed to truly serious consequences of what has already happened, with the worst impacts falling in the poorer countries. But it is not yet too late to avoid irreversible catastrophes.

Professor Nancy Rothwell

A chemistry set like the one I got when I was six and made me so excited about science. Travelling back in time to watch Michael Faraday's original Christmas lectures. 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."

Professor Daniel Gilbert

A copy of WARPED PASSAGES by Lisa Randall. A pre-CBS 1958 Fender Stratocaster. An espresso machine

Maggie Gee

I would like a visit to an observatory anywhere in the world with a telescope through which I could look at the stars, and see things I will never otherwise see. (I wrote a novel called Light Years that was structured around the stars and planets, and felt dwarfed and intoxicated by space.) I sometimes think that if I were dying, that would be the time to be put in a rocket and sent far out into the universe. I would still die, but at least I would see before I died. A National Geographic hand-held GPS. Most writers have very little sense of direction -- either we like to be looked after, or we have poor visual-spatial skills -- and with this I would never be lost, except when I lent it to my beloved daughter Rosa, who likes to travel in Central and South America: it doesn't matter if I get lost as long as she never does. Wild Amazon by Nick Gordon, Evans Mitchell Books, £25. Does this count as a science book? Rosa and I could read it together. I was alerted to it by New Scientist who called it a "magnificent volume" and praised the way it explains the processes of wildlife photography. I want it as a companion volume to the Yann Arthus Bertrand pictures of the earth which for me have never become a cliche: beauty that isn't man-made never becomes cliched.

Eleanor Updale

The book I want this Christmas is Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. When it won this year's Royal Society Prize the judges praised its mix of humour and serious science. That's just what we all need something that brings theory into the real world with a light touch. Of course I will be giving the junior prize winner, Richard Hammond's Can You Feel the Force, to younger friends. It's one of the few books that successfully walks the line between being boring or patronising while explaining core scientific principles. I'd also like a machine that could sit in my home and silently transform all our rubbish into power. I suffer terribly from recycling anxiety I can't work out what category some things fall into, and then I wonder whether sending a huge smelly lorry round to collect it really does as much for the environment as we all hope. My third choice would be a TV remote control with massive buttons and clear symbols that won't rub off with an onboard translating tool that turns instruction booklets into plain English.

Professor Chris Stringer 

For a popular science book I'm torn between these two. The imagery in "Planet Earth" was so striking that it would be great to have the pick of the images to admire in large format. And as one of my non-professional science interests is astronomy, this book on Mars would be a nice one to compare and contrast with "Planet Earth". "Planet Earth": The Photographs by Alastair Fothergill Postcards from Mars: The First Photographer on the Red Planet by Jim Bell. A work-related novelty would be a complete Neanderthal skeleton, now an accurate composite replica is being marketed (but at a price I can't afford!)& Finally, if West Ham make it to a Cup Final this season, a few tickets would be very welcome!