Neurodiverse scientist’s ‘instruction manual for humans’ wins the 2020 Royal Society Science Book Prize

03 November 2020

Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us about Life, Love and Relationships (Viking) by postdoctoral scientist and debut author, Dr Camilla Pang, has become the 33rd winner of the prestigious Royal Society Science Book Prize, sponsored by Insight Investment.

In Explaining Humans, Dr Pang - diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of eight and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder at 26 years old - shows readers how proteins, machine learning and molecular chemistry can teach us about the complexities of human behaviour and the world around us. Pang, who struggled to understand the world growing up due to her diagnosis, set out to create a manual for humans that she could consult. Armed with a PHD in biochemistry, she lays out life’s everyday interactions through a set of scientific principles, showing how thinking differently can be a superpower instead of a disability. 

Pang’s book dissects four categories of routine human experiences: Decisions and the route we take to make them; Conflict and how we can avoid it; Relationships and how we establish them; Etiquette and how we conform to it. She provides a unique look at who we are and why we conform to social norms and shares an inspiring guide on how to lead a more connected, happier life.

Chair of this year’s judging panel, Professor Anne Osbourn FRS, Group Leader at the John Innes Centre and Director of the Norwich Research Park Industrial Biotechnology Alliance, said: “Explaining Humans is an intelligent and charming investigation into how we understand human behaviour, while drawing on the author’s superpower of neurodivergence –but it does a lot more than that. Each chapter focuses on a different facet of science and, while explaining the scientific theory in a readily accessible way, also delves into analogies of accepted social norms and how to interpret and respond to them. Crucially, the book also provides insights into different ways of thinking and the challenges of being neurodiverse in a ‘normal’ world. Pang may have written this book as a manual to understand a world that sometimes feels alien to her, but it also allows neurotypicals to see the world from an entirely new perspective.”

Dr Pang becomes the youngest author to win the Prize. She is also sixth woman to scoop the Prize in as many years, following last year’s winner Caroline Criado Perez (Invisible Women, 2019), Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (Inventing Ourselves, 2018), Cordelia Fine (Testosterone Rex, 2017), Andrea Wulf (The Invention of Nature, 2016) and Gaia Vince (Adventures in the Anthropocene, 2015). The panel of five judges praised the scientist and writer for her original and unique perspective on our experience as humans through the prism of scientific understanding. 

Professor Brian Cox OBE FRS, the Royal Society’s Professor for Public Engagement in Science, commented: “This year, science is firmly in the spotlight and high in the public consciousness as we all feel the impact of this global pandemic. Our collective experience has been a stark reminder of the invaluable role that good science communication plays in equipping us to have a deeper understanding of how to respond to and protect ourselves and those around us. 

“This year’s winning book, Explaining Humans, exemplifies good science writing and communication by illustrating how science can help us to understand why we do what we do.”

During a virtual ceremony streamed via the Royal Society’s YouTube Page, Pang received a cheque for £25,000 and the five shortlisted authors were each awarded £2,500.

Professor Anne Osbourn FRS was joined on the judging panel by: Blackwell's Trade Buying Manager, Katharine Fry; journalist, Katy Guest; Royal Society University Research Fellow, Dr Kartic Subr; and actress and author Sophie Ward.

Founded in 1988, the Royal Society Science Book Prize exists to promote the accessibility and joy of popular science books to the public. Over three decades, it has championed writers such as Stephen Hawking, Jared Diamond, Stephen Jay Gould, Brian Greene, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and last year’s winner Caroline Criado Perez.