Shortlist for the Royal Society Science Book Prize 2019 revealed

27 August 2019

The Royal Society has revealed the shortlist for the Royal Society Science Book Prize 2019 sponsored by Insight Investment, celebrating the very best in popular science writing from around the world for a non-specialist audience.

This year’s six shortlisted books, chosen from over 170 submissions, ask readers to rethink the way they view both themselves and the world around them, whilst their wide-ranging subject matter reflects the sheer breadth of science writing published today.

The shortlisted authors, many of whom are active science communicators, comprise two debut authors (Monty Lyman, Tim Smedley), a mathematician (Steven Strogatz), writer, broadcaster and feminist campaigner (Caroline Criado Perez), and two physicists (Paul Steinhardt, John Gribbin) practising theoretical science and astrophysics respectively. Only one of the authors,  John Gribbin, has previously been nominated for the Prize, longlisted with In Search of the Multiverse (2010) and Deep Simplicity (2005), and shortlisted with The Stuff of the Universe along with Martin Rees (1991) and The Omega Point (1988).

The judges praised the six authors on the rigorous scientific content of their books, conveyed through elegant writing and engaging storytelling. They pointed to each book’s active role in questioning the status quo, by introducing practical solutions to tackling big issues such as gender politics and pollution, and by introducing complex scientific breakthroughs and theories – from the simple interpretations of the quantum world to proving the existence of an impossible form of matter  – in an accessible way for lay readers.

The full 2019 shortlist is (in order of author surname):

Chair of this year’s judging panel, Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt, Principal and Professorial Research Fellow in Computer Science at Jesus College, University of Oxford, comments:

“This year’s shortlist is a great collection of popular science writing. Each book on the list presents an area of science that is fascinating, enthralling and important: from the mysteries of the quantum universe to the air we breathe, from the way that data encodes bias to the skin that is our largest organ, from the infinite power of calculus to new kinds of matter, our shortlist will appeal to all.

“Within these titles we encounter triumph and tragedy, hope and despair, enlightenment and enduring mysteries. The writers share great stories, rooted in outstanding research. They open up our understanding of the world in which we live and remind us of the important discoveries taking place around us every day.”

Two books that capture the zeitgeist and present clear cases for policy change feature on the list. Writer, broadcaster and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado Perez is shortlisted for her second book, Invisible Women: a book exploring the myriad ways the world is designed for men – from the size of mobile phones to the design of air bags - using compelling new research, case studies and statistics. Meanwhile, sustainability journalist Tim Smedley’s first book, Clearing the Air, presents insights from the scientists, countries and politicians leading the fight against air pollution and shares practical ways in which readers can proactively contribute to creating a cleaner future. In The Remarkable Life of the Skin, fellow debut author and Junior Doctor in Acute General Medicine at Oxford University Hospitals, Monty Lyman, uses his specialism as a dermatologist to create the first popular science guide to the many layers of the body’s largest and fastest growing organ through the lenses of science, sociology and history.

Two other books on the list that will appeal to popular science enthusiasts deal with game-changing theories and discoveries in the field of physics. In Six Impossible Things: The ‘Quanta of Solace’ and the Mysteries of the Subatomic World, John Gribbin – established science writer and Visiting Fellow at the University of Sussex – delivers a short, common-sense guide that aims to explain Quantum Physics through six theories – earning it the nickname the ‘TARDIS of popular science books’ by popular science author Brian Clegg. Meanwhile, American physicist Paul Steinhardt – currently Albert Einstein professor at Princeton University – writes in The Second Kind of Impossible: The Extraordinary Quest for a New Form of Matter about his discovery of a new kind of matter – the quasicrystal – which shattered centuries-old laws of nature, proving that there’s a whole new world of forms of matter. 

Finally, a mathematician appears on the shortlist for the third year running, with the inclusion of Infinite Powers by American professor of applied mathematics, Steven Strogatz, whose history of calculus maps the impact that this branch of mathematics has had on our contemporary world.

Four out of the six books on the shortlist come from independent publishers. An Icon Books title makes it onto the list for the second time in two years, following Cordelia Fine’s win with Testosterone Rex in 2017. Penguin Random House has titles from two imprints (Chatto & Windus and Bantam Press).

Founded in 1988, the Prize – well-loved and respected in the popular science community – boasts an illustrious list of former winners including Bill Bryson (A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2014), Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel, 1998), the late Stephen Hawking (The Universe in a Nutshell, 2002), Mark Miodownik (Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World, 2014), , Andrea Wulf (The Invention of Nature, 2016), Cordelia Fine (Testosterone Rex, 2017) and Sarah-Jane Blakemore (Inventing Ourselves, 2018).

Alongside Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt, the 2019 judging panel comprises: Dr Shukry James Habib, stem cell specialist and Royal Society University Research Fellow; bestselling author, Dorothy Koomson; actor and science communicator, Stephen McGann and Gwyneth Williams, former controller of BBC Radio 4 and 4 Extra.

The winner of the 2019 Prize will be announced at an awards ceremony at the Royal Society on Monday 23 September 2019, hosted by Professor Brian Cox OBE FRS, the Royal Society’s Professor for Public Engagement in Science. The winner will receive a cheque for £25,000, with £2,500 awarded to each of the five shortlisted authors.