Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Royal Society Winton prize for science book announced

Finalists required to join panel discussion before winner announced
James Gleick
James Gleick: too much information. Photograph: Mark Jenkinson/Corbis

There's always an awkward moment before somebody opens the envelope and reveals the winner, and it usually has to be filled with urbane chatter and cautious modesty. I'll end the suspense now: the £10,000 Royal Society Winton prize for science books was won by James Gleick with The Information, an account of communication technology which sweeps from prehistoric talking drums to telegraph wires and the modern internet.
The awkward delay on this occasion was compounded by a television timetable: the winner was to be announced and interviewed live on Channel 4. So before the announcement, and having read out specimens of their texts – and you can have a look for yourself here – the evening's moderator, the comedian Ben Miller, called the five attending hopefuls to sit on stage at the Royal Society and engage in a panel discussion.

That is a tough call, when you are waiting to hear if you've just collected £10,000, and it must have been especially tough for Steven Pinker, whose The Better Angels of Our Nature had also just failed to bag the Samuel Johnson prize. Gleick – yet to learn that he had won – contemplated the colossal flood of information newly available at the touch of a keyboard and reminded the audience that he was addressing them on Cyber Monday ("something to do with shopping. I didn't make that up. Google it after we are done.") Paradoxically, people sometimes felt they were drowning in information. "We have devices in our pockets that instantly let us get information," he said. He saw such devices as new agencies in an old ambition to make sense of the world. "They ought to be making us more conscious than ever that information is not knowledge – much less wisdom."

Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, conceded that he had, within a year of mental training, gained a champion's title in a memory contest, but he said, it was only an American title, and he did it with British coaching and everybody knew the Europeans were way ahead in this field.

Lone Frank, author of My Beautiful Genome and the only non-American, read out a family history that involved parental divorce, suicide attempts, psychiatric treatment, manic depression and serious alcohol consumption, and then confided that she had been more interested in the links between her genetic inheritance and a tendency to depression than in her risk of heart disease or Alzheimer's. Miller asked her if there was anything she would like to change in her genome. "No," she said. "I'd probably like to alter my childhood."

The physicist Brian Greene, shortlisted for The Hidden Reality, recalled explaining to a US audience the implications of the multiverse: an infinite number of parallel realities in which, he said to Miller by way of illustration, the people on the podium were sitting in the same hall having the same conversation but in some of them Greene would be the comedian and Miller would be the cosmic physicist. And then, he said, a woman asked from the back of the hall "Does that mean there's a reality in which Sarah Palin is the president?" He didn't get a chance to answer, because a member of the audience called out "Didn't you hear the professor? The reality has to be compatible with the laws of physics."

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