Annal: 2012 Royal Society Prize for Science Books

Results of the Royal Society Prizes in the year 2012.

Book:The Information (James Gleick)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

James Gleick

James Gleick, the author of the best sellers Chaos and Genius, now brings us a work just as astonishing and masterly: a revelatory chronicle and meditation that shows how information has become the modern era’s defining quality—the blood, the fuel, the vital principle of our world.

The story of information begins in a time profoundly unlike our own, when every thought and utterance vanishes as soon as it is born. From the invention of scripts and alphabets to the long-misunderstood talking drums of Africa, Gleick tells the story of information technologies that changed the very nature of human consciousness. He provides portraits of the key figures contributing to the inexorable development of our modern understanding of information: Charles Babbage, the idiosyncratic inventor of the first great mechanical computer; Ada Byron, the brilliant and doomed daughter of the poet, who became the first true programmer;…[more]

Book:The Better Angels of Our Nature

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

Steven Pinker

This riveting, myth-destroying book reveals how, contrary to popular belief, humankind has become progressively less violent, over millenia and decades. Can violence really have declined? The images of conflict we see daily on our screens from around the world suggest this is an almost obscene claim to be making. Extraordinarily, however, Steven Pinker shows violence within and between societies—both murder and warfare—really has declined from prehistory to today. We are much less likely to die at someone else’s hands than ever before. Even the horrific carnage of the last century, when compared to the dangers of pre-state societies, is part of this trend.

Debunking both the idea of the ‘noble savage’ and an over-simplistic Hobbesian notion of a ‘nasty, brutish and short’ life, Steven Pinker argues that modernity and its cultural institutions are actually making us better people. He ranges over…[more]

Book:The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos

The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos

Brian Greene

In this exhilarating new book, Brian Greene explores our most current understanding of the universe, its deepest laws of nature, and our continuing quest to know more.

The Hidden Reality reveals how major developments in different branches of fundamental theoretical physics—relativistic, quantum, cosmological, unified, computational—have all led us to consider one or another variety of parallel universe. In some, they are separated from us by enormous stretches of space or time, in others they’re hovering millimetres away, in others still the very notion of their location proves to be a concept beyond our reach. Most extraordinarily, Greene shows how all of these parallel universe proposals emerge unbidden from the mathematics of theories developed to explain conventional data and observations of the cosmos.

This is a life-changing book that gives us a true sense of the astounding possibilities of modern scientific investigation.

Book:Moonwalking with Einstein

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Joshua Foer

On average, people squander forty days annually trying to remember things they’ve forgotten. Joshua Foer used to be one of those people. But after a year of training, he found himself in the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship. He also discovered a truth we too often forget: In every way, we are the sum of our memories.

In Moonwalking with Einstein Foer draws on cutting-edge research, the cultural history of memory and the techniques of ‘mental atheletes’ to transform our understanding of human remembering. He learns the ancient methods used by Cicero and Medieval scholars. He meets amnesiacs, neuroscientists and savants—including a man who claims to have memorized more than nine thousand books. In doing so, he reveals the hidden impact of memory on our lives, and shows how we can all dramatically improve our memories.

At a time when electronic devices have all but rendered our individual memories obsolete, Foer’s book is a quest to resurrect the gift we all possess, but that too often slips our minds.

Book:My Beautiful Genome

My Beautiful Genome: Exposing Our Genetic Future, One Quirk at a Time

Lone Frank

Internationally acclaimed science writer Lone Frank swabs up her DNA to provide the first truly intimate account of the new science of consumer-led genomics. She challenges the business mavericks intent on mapping every baby’s genome, ponders the consequences of biological fortune-telling, and prods the psychologists who hope to uncover just how much or how little our environment will matter in the new genetic century—a quest made all the more gripping as Frank considers her family’s and her own struggles with depression.

Book:The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age

The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age

Nathan Wolfe

“[A] quietly terrifying book…. It’s hard not to feel a bit feverish at times while reading.” —The Boston Globe

In The Viral Storm, award-winning biologist Nathan Wolfe tells the story of how viruses and human beings have evolved side by side through history; how deadly viruses like HIV, swine flu, and bird flu almost wiped us out in the past; and why modern life has made our species vulnerable to the threat of a global pandemic. He takes readers along on his groundbreaking and often dangerous research trips to reveal the surprising origins of the most deadly diseases and to explain the role that viruses have played in human evolution.

In a world where each new outbreak seems worse than the one before, Wolfe points the way forward, as new technologies are brought to bear to neutralize these viruses and even harness their power for the good of humanity. His provocative vision of the future will change the way we think about viruses, and perhaps remove a potential threat to humanity’s survival.

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