Thomas Leveson’s The Hunt for Vulcan presents an intriguing biography of a planet that turned out not to exist. Science fact proves stranger than fiction in Oliver Morton’s The Planet Remade where top scientists explore seemingly outlandish methods to respond to climate change. In The Gene, Siddhartha Mukherjee examines the controversial history of our genes, including attempts at human engineering. Meanwhile, Jo Marchant’s Cure delves into the latest scientific research revealing the unexpected ways in which the mind can have a healing influence on the body.
Like all good novels, the shortlisted books are populated with vivid characters, none more so than Alexander von Humboldt in The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf – a forgotten hero of science who was an inspiration to Charles Darwin and Jules Verne. While Tim Birkhead combines the eccentric lives of egg collectors with an exhilarating journey into the science behind eggs in The Most Perfect Thing.
Chair of judges Bill Bryson said: “Few ideas are more exasperatingly wide of the mark than the belief that science is somehow a thing apart, something that happens in laboratories and classrooms but otherwise doesn’t much intersect with our daily lives. So it really cannot be stressed too often: science isn’t separate from our daily lives. It is our daily lives. It explains who we are, how we got here and where we are going. It is innately enchanting. These books show science writing at its best, lyrical and vivid and thrilling — not to mention as interesting, useful and accessible — as any writing you will find in any genre, and anyone who tells you differently simply cannot claim to be well read.”
The shortlist in full (in alphabetical order by author surname):
- The Most Perfect Thing by Tim Birkhead (Bloomsbury)
- The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson (Head of Zeus)
- Cure by Jo Marchant (Canongate)
- The Planet Remade by Oliver Morton (Granta)
- The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Bodley Head)
- The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf (John Murray)
Chair of judges Bill Bryson won the Prize in 2004, with A Short History of Nearly Everything. He is joined on the judging panel by theoretical physicist Dr Clare Burrage, celebrated science fiction author Alastair Reynolds, ornithologist and science blogger GrrlScientist, and Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at The Science Museum.
Founded in 1988, the Prize celebrates outstanding popular science books from around the world and is open to authors of science books written for a non-specialist audience. Over the decades it has championed writers such as Stephen Hawking, Jared Diamond, Stephen Jay Gould and Brian Greene.
The winner will be crowned at an evening ceremony on 19 September and will receive a cheque for £25,000, with £2,500 awarded to each of the five shortlisted authors. Professor Brian Cox OBE FRS, currently the Royal Society’s Professor for Public Engagement in Science, will be hosting the awards ceremony.