Archbishops and others
Scientists, writers and the Archbishop of Canterbury reveal their favourite science books
A survey released today reveals the top science books of prominent scientists and public figures. In the survey the Royal Institution and the Science Communication Group at Imperial College London asked scientists from many disciplines, as well as authors and other notable people, to name their favourite science book and why they like it.
Unsurprisingly, books that tackle deep ideas like evolution, quantum physics and the secrets of the mind scored highly. The Archbishop of Canterbury favoured A Leg to Stand On by Oliver Sacks, the New York-based neurologist made famous in the film Awakenings. Rowan Williams said that the book, about Sacks’ recovery from a severe accident, ‘challenges all sorts of assumptions about mind and body’.
Susan Greenfield’s favourite science book was How to Build a Time Machine, a book about quantum physics by Australia-based physicist Paul Davies. Baroness Greenfield, the Director of the Royal Institution, said the book ‘looks easy – like a picture book – but introduces you to lots of difficult concepts’.
Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene was cited by psychologist Susan Blackmore for its ‘simplicity and power’, and by science writer Matt Ridley, who remembered reading the book for the first time as an undergraduate. He said, ‘Until now, my teachers had helpfully divided the world into right or wrong ideas. But here, I suddenly realised, I was going to have to make up my own mind’.
As much as some choices were about ideas, others were made for inspiration and pure enjoyment. Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at Oxford University, chose A Mathematician’s Apology by G H Hardy, which he first read when he was in school. ‘It was like hearing real music for the first time after practising scales and arpeggios for years,’ he said. ‘Being exposed to the power of this logical language to prove things with 100% certainty was very empowering to an adolescent whose world was constantly shifting.’
Another childhood favourite was Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Mark Miodownik, an engineer from King’s College London, said ‘I found the book so much funnier and cleverer than any other book I had read that I wore my dressing gown to school for a week’.
One book was enthusiastically cited for being both great science and a great read: The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. Geneticist Steve Jones said it has ‘more adventures on a single page than most modern writers manage to squeeze into a chapter, or an entire book’. Science writer and broadcaster Vivienne Parry has had to replace her much-loved copy of The Voyage of the Beagle three times. She said, ‘It works as a terrific travel book, as a riveting insight into the scientific journey of one of the world’s great scientists and as a great read. What more could you want?’
NOTES TO EDITORS
1. The complete list of responses to the survey can be found on the Royal Institution’s website, HERE
2. The survey was conducted to coincide with a public event at Imperial College London, ‘The best science books ever’. Three writers will each put forward their choice for the best science book, and the audience will vote on the one they think should win. Tickets are available to the public by calling the Royal Institution on 020 7409 2992 or going to www.rigb.org. Press tickets are available by calling the same number.