By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group.
The bestselling author, James Gleick, has won the world’s most prestigious science book prize with his revelatory chronicle of how information has become the defining quality of the modern age.
Gleick, who spent seven years working on the book, said he was surprised, and startled in an event at the society chaired by the comedian, actor and popular science writer, Ben Miller, and broadcast by Tom Clarke of Channel 4 news.
After thanking his agent, editor and wife, the New York born journalist remarked on how, unlike researchers who write popular science books, he felt like he was an outsider with his ‘face pressed against the glass.’
The veteran American writer made a huge debut with his first book, Chaos (1987), an international bestseller which provided insights into the apparent disorder in complex systems and made everyone aware of the extraordinary influence of the ‘butterfly effect.’ Since then he has written Pulitzer-Prize shortlisted biographies of two heroes of science, Richard Feynman and Isaac Newton.
Gleick’s latest work tells the story of information, from the theory of information proposed by American Claude Shannon to the current revolution in biological information, replicated and transmitted in the form of DNA since the origin of life, and the tsumani of data that now engulf us to become the very quintessence of 21st century society.
Along the way the reader encounters many figures that are also celebrated in the Science Museum, such as Charles Babbage, inventor of the first great mechanical computer; Ada Lovelace, the dazzling daughter of the poet Byron, who became the first true programmer, and Alan Turing, who lay the foundations of modern computing and cracked both the codes of nature and the Nazi war machine.
The stories behind the revolutions that created today’s information age will also form the core of a forthcoming multi-million pound gallery, Making Modern Communications, scheduled to open in the museum in 2014.
The judges on this year’s judging panel included the authors Jasper Fforde and Tania Hershman, BBC Commissioning Editor for Science Kim Shillinglaw and Royal Society University Research Fellow Samuel Turvey. The panel was chaired by Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who said the decision was difficult, though unanimous. “The Information “an ambitious and insightful book that takes us, with verve and fizz, on a journey from African drums to computers. It is one of those very rare books that provide a completely new framework for understanding the world around us.”
The prize, award by Society president Sir Paul Nurse, saw off strong competition from a heavyweight shortlist:
• Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books), on his quest to understand human memory.
• My Beautiful Genome by Lone Frank, published by Oneworld, a personal perspective on personal genetics
• The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books), which explores parallel universes and the laws of the cosmos.
• The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books), which reveals how, contrary to popular belief, humankind has become progressively less violent over the millennia.
• The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe, published by Allen Lane (Penguin Books), which examines the world of viruses and why modern life has made our species vulnerable to the threat of a global pandemic and how to remain ahead of the threat.
Sir Paul remarked that there had been a renaissance of science writing and admitted it was a ‘pity that someone had to win.’ Despite the lack of British writers on the shortlist, many were present in the audience, including Armand Leroi, Tim Radford, Jo Marchant, Martin Rees, Stuart Clark, Helena Cronin, Philip Ball, Graham Farmelo, Alex Bellos and Jim Al-Khalili.
Set up in 1988 as the “Science Book Prizes”, it became the Rhône-Poulenc Prizes for Science Books from 1990 – 2000, then became the Aventis Prizes for Science Books from 2001 – 2006 and the Royal Society Prize for Science Books from 2007 – 2010. Now in its 25th year, the book prize is now sponsored by the global investment management company Winton Capital Management. David Harding, Founder and Chairman , congratulated James Gleick as ‘ a worthy winner in a strong field’ and thanked the shortlisted authors for helping to turn the sea of scientific information into knowledge.
Roger Highfield is an author, editor of book shortlisted for the prize in 2008 (A Life Decoded by Craig Venter) and Director of External Affairs of the Science Museum Group.