Shortlist for 2023 Royal Society Science Book Prize announced

26 September 2023

The Royal Society has today announced the six titles shortlisted for the 2023 Royal Society Science Book Prize, sponsored by the Trivedi Family Foundation, which celebrates the best popular science writing from across the globe.

The list features the youngest shortlistee in the Prize’s history, debut author Nicklas Brendborg – a PhD student of molecular biology at the University of Copenhagen – whilst Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ed Yong is recognised for the second time, having previously appeared on the 2017 list. Joining them on the shortlist are a second Pulitzer Prize recipient, Kate Zernike, reporter for The New York Times; Roma Agrawal, an engineer, author and presenter who worked on the Shard, Western Europe's tallest tower; writer, birdwatcher and conductor Lev Parikian; and journalist and author of sixteen books David Quammen. 

The full shortlist – selected from 255 submissions published between 1 July 2022 and 30 September 2023 – is:

Professor Alain Goriely FRS, chair of the 2023 judges, says:

“The submissions for this year's Royal Society Science Book Prize have been exceptionally impressive, showcasing both the breadth and depth across the spheres of science, technology, and society. Our panel has diligently sifted through an extraordinary collection of works to shortlist the very best, a task that was both challenging and rewarding. 

The quality and diversity of the books that have made it to our shortlist demonstrate that popular science has come to maturity as a literary genre and highlight its significance in contemporary discourse. The shortlisted books offer a fascinating array of topics, ranging from the intricate beauty of the animal kingdom to the fascinating intricacies of nuts and bolts. They also delve into pressing issues such as diversity in science and the complex relationship between science and governmental policy in the last pandemic. The depth and accessibility of these works are a testament to the evolving reach of science in society.”

Brian Cox, Royal Society Professor for Public Engagement in Science, says:

“Good science writing changes the way we see and understand our world. This year’s shortlist encourages us to contemplate the mysteries of nature, confronts the battles scientists face in research, and explores the inventions that have shaped modern design. These books have the power to transport us to what may seem like other realms – but in fact they describe the familiar world of our experience, seen through another lens. I would encourage any reader to embrace science books. They certainly feed our curiosity, but they also deliver a new and powerful perspective on the everyday word we might think we know.”

Alongside Professor Alain Goriely, the 2023 judging panel comprises of author Bonnie Garmus, whose bestselling debut novel Lessons in Chemistry has a TV adaptation launching this autumn; neuroscientist and Royal Society University Research Fellow Rebecca Henry; film, television and stage actor and author of historical fiction, Paterson Joseph; and The Daily Telegraph’s arts and entertainment editor, Anita Singh.

The shortlisted titles represent the judges’ pick of the most captivating and urgent science writing of the past twelve months, reflecting the place of science in our cultural landscape. They exemplify the extraordinary variety of topics and narrative style within the genre, and the role that great writing plays in bringing outstanding research and ideas to a wider audience.

Two of the shortlisted books are investigative in style, using the authors’ unique insights to provide deeper understanding of recent events. Zernike’s The Exceptions offers an interrogation of gender equality in science via the lens of the ground-breaking fight for equal rights at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), led by Nancy Hopkins. Zernike broke this story as a reporter at The Boston Globe in 1999. Meanwhile Quammen gives an enthralling account of the unfolding of the COVID-19 pandemic, telling the story of numerous scientists who study coronaviruses, shedding new light on their emergence from animals to humans, how they adapt and – sometimes catastrophically – spread.

A further two titles reveal hidden complexities in the everyday, spotlighting the mechanics of the natural and technological world. Award-winning engineer Agrawal deconstructs feats of engineering into seven fundamental inventions (nail, spring, wheel, lens, magnet, string and pump), showing that each is a wonder of design refined across centuries. Taking wings as his focal point, Parikian demonstrates just how miraculous flight is, tracing its evolution across 300 million years and compelling readers to look differently at the insects and birds we see today.

The final two books illuminate the awe and wonder to be found in the many mysteries of the natural world. Brendborg takes the reader on a journey through the most cutting-edge research from the natural world and science to examine ageing – from the centuries-old Greenland shark and backwards-ageing jellyfish to the man who fasted for a year and the woman who successfully edited her own DNA. Yong meanwhile shows the world through the eyes of various animal species to reveal unfathomable new dimensions to better understand the planet we live on. He demonstrates the richness to be found in stepping outside of the typical boundaries of human perspective.

Over the past 35 years, the Prize has championed non-fiction books that use captivating narratives to open up science to a wider audience and celebrates the collective joy of science writing. Recent winners have sharpened our perspective and expanded our scientific curiosity through exploring humanity’s legacy, as well as what’s to come (A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 billion years in 12 chapters by Henry Gee, 2022), showcased the remarkable world of fungi (Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake, 2021), and offered fresh insight into neurodiversity (Explaining Humans by Dr Camilla Pang, 2020).

The winner of the 2023 Prize will be revealed at a ceremony on 22 November. The winner will receive a cheque for £25,000, with £2,500 awarded to each of the five shortlisted authors.

Judges’ comments on shortlisted books

Anita Singh on Nuts and Bolts by Roma Agrawal:

“From skyscrapers and smartphones to ballpoint pens, how often do we stop to consider the engineering that makes these things possible? This feat of science writing – itself beautifully designed and well-structured – will encourage you to appreciate the simple but ingenious technology on which our world is built. An exemplary communicator, using accessible language throughout, Agrawal has brought to life the evolution of engineering through seven crucial inventions that have changed the way we live.”

Rebecca Henry on Jellyfish Age Backwards by Nicklas Brendborg:

“As a neuroscientist, I have always been fascinated by how our brain and body interconnect, and ageing is an intrinsic example of this which we can all relate to, whether we like it or not. So, of course, I was immediately intrigued by this book. Centred around the mysterious immortality of the almost alien-like jellyfish, to the wider world of animals, Brendborg explores how nature pushes the limits of what we think we know about ageing. Almost unbelievable at times, whilst remaining grounded in sound research, Jellyfish Age Backwards delights with surprises throughout – it is truly hard to put this book down.” 

Bonnie Garmus on Taking Flight by Lev Parikian:

“Parikian’s fresh and friendly writing brings to life the incredible feat of natural engineering called flight. The fact that we humans, from Icarus to the Wright Brothers, to the astronauts, have always dreamed of flight and gone to extreme lengths to achieve it, sometimes makes us forget that so many animals already can fly. And if the feat of flight weren't enough, these animals do it across huge distances, despite pollution, and in the face of ever-changing weather patterns. Gravity was solved hundreds of millions of years ago, but not by us. Thanks to Parikian, you'll never look at a bird, a bat, or a beetle the same way again.”

Paterson Joseph on Breathless by David Quammen:

“I didn’t think I would ever want to read a book about the pandemic, but I truly have to applaud Quammen for his expert storytelling that kept me gripped and informed throughout. From the virus’ initial discovery to the international science community coming together to find solutions, it reads like the script of a fast-paced thriller where Quammen plays the detective. Importantly, he explains how scientists were able to develop vaccines at such a critical speed and sets out the need for preparedness for future pandemics. With a deftness of touch and respect for the reader in a world that is very much still in recovery, Quammen talks us through the sequence of events in a calm and considered way.”

Alain Goriely on An Immense World by Ed Yong:

“This book is a masterpiece that unlocks new dimensions in the human imagination. Yong manages to play with our senses through the power of storytelling, reminding us that we as humans are merely one of an expansive ecosystem of fauna and flora – each organism with its own way of perceiving the world around them. The human experience is by no means universal, and to think otherwise would be foolish. With exceptional writing throughout and rich accompanying imagery, Yong calls on us to break out of the limits of our own senses, rethink our place in the natural world, and find new appreciation for the superpowers of animals.”

Alain Goriely on The Exceptions by Kate Zernike:

“A gripping page-turner backed up with extensive research by Zernike, The Exceptions traces how Nancy Hopkins and a group of astounding women at MIT came together to catalyse change. Their story is angering, at times depressing and, above all, inspiring, but this book also remains timely in reminding us that we have not made as much progress as we think we have and that there is still much work to be done. As when Zernike first broke the story for The Boston Globe in 1999, creating waves across the international scientific community, I hope this book will inspire the next generation of scientists to continue shaping a fair and inclusive culture in research.”