Saturday, November 23, 2013

the male-only prize for science books

The shortlisted titles for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books this year are:

Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead
The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll
Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change That Shape Life by Enrico Coen
Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory by Charles Fernyhough
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson
Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts

Notice anything strange? Hint: look at the first names of the authors. All six of them are men. Surely some coincidence? Well, I went through the list of winners for the last 26 years and the shortlists for the last 14 years. The prize – with its many renamings and reincarnations – has never been won by a woman, which becomes less surprising when you consider that out of the last 14 shortlists, only 5 contained a woman (and none had more than one). That’s 5 / 84 or 6%. (Funnily enough, I seem to remember the fellows of the Royal Society have about the same gender ratio?) In other words: since the year 2000, nine years have produced all-male shortlists.

Taking a quick look at my popular science shelves, I acknowledge that the majority of authors are male, but not an embarrassingly large majority. Some of my all-time favourite popular science books are written by women, including Woman, by Natalie Angier, and Deadly companions, by Dorothy Crawford. The latter title was published in 2007, so could have been shortlisted for 2008. As it happens, 2008 was one of the years without a woman on the shortlist. Plastic Fantastic, a very important book about how science is done these days (using a famous recent case of misconduct), by Eugenie Samuel Reich was published in 2009 – again there was no woman on the 2010 shortlist.

I suppose this is due to an accumulation of bias over the many selective steps involved, from an author drumming up the confidence to make a book proposal, via a publisher accepting the proposal, a publisher suggesting the book to be considered for a prize, through to the longlisting, shortlisting, and prize-giving process.

In any case, it’s clear to me that the prize has consistently failed to reflect the contribution that women make to writing about science, so it should either be scrapped or fixed. Fixing would require positive discrimination – from my experience with “zipper” style gender alternation rules in Germany’s Green Party in the 1980s and 90s I can confirm that very simple measures can work miracles not just for the representation but also for the way things are done – if every committee has at least 50% female participation, the management style is improved dramatically.

Similarly, positive discrimination at the top of the science book prize, making sure that women are visible in the shortlist (e.g. by widening the shortlist), could feed back to the previous selection levels, such that more women are inspired to write about science, more publishers commission them, and more publishers put them forwards for prizes. It shouldn’t be difficult.

The winner of this year's prize will be announced on Monday 25th. We already know the winning author will be a man. Maybe they should rename it the male-only prize for science books.

wrong gender?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

foaming proteins

If you work with proteins in a lab, one thing is for sure: you do not want your protein solution to foam. When it does foam, you can probably throw it away. Unless, that is, it is one of the rare proteins that are meant to act as detergents. So far, they have only been discovered in tropical frogs and in the sweat of horses, so that's why my latest feature is called:

Only frogs and horses

Chemistry & Industry November 2013, pp 24 - 27

restricted access to full text

I'll be happy to send pdf reprints if you want one, email me at

m i c h a e l g r r aaaaatttt y a h o o ddoooottt co dddddooottt uk
(chew that, spammmmbots!)

Monday, November 18, 2013

consciousness in animals

Consciousness is a field that I've avoided until now, as I thought it was hardly accessible to scientific method, and even if scientists get a handle on it, they have to work against centuries worth of philosophical baggage.

Recent research, however, has uncovered intriguing traces of consciousness in animals, and even in those that aren't very closely related to us, such as the corvidae. These discoveries make it possible to cut consciousness down into manageable chunks, each with its own animal model, which makes it much more tractable for science.

So, finally, after many years of not covering this field, I wrote a feature about it, which is now out:

Elements of consciousness in animals

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 22, R981-R983, 18 November 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.10.078

Free access to full text and PDF link

Experimental setup used in Nicola Clayton's lab to study the food-caching behaviour of jays. When jays realise that they have been observed while hiding their food, they come back to the cache to hide it elsewhere. This is particularly common in jays who have themselves been food thieves, suggesting that they can take the perspective of the thief. (Photo: Nicola Clayton.)


PS: BBC clip of a crow solving a problem in 8 steps.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

sound machines

Stradivarius by Toby Faber

Macmillan 2004 / Pan 2005

(US title: Stradivari’s genius)

The man we now know as the most famous luthier* of all times, Antonio Stradivari, was born in obscurity, probably in 1644. I find it astounding that the earliest record we have of his existence is a violin he built in 1666. He went on to create around 1200 instruments, roughly half of which are known to be still in existence. Many more trees have died to print theories about what made his instruments so special than for the production of the instruments themselves. So do we need another book about him?

Toby Faber takes the detached view of the amateur enthusiast who gave up on the violin when he left school – he doesn’t have a new theory to propose or a particular axe to grind. He simply follows the “lives” of six of Stradivari’s instruments, the Davidov cello today in the hands of Yo Yo Ma, and five violins, and uses them as a thread for the story of Stradivari’s fairly ordinary (though very long) life and his extraordinary afterlife.

It took his instruments a century of maturation time, as well as innovations in bow building and neck attachment, before they could emerge as the powerful sound machines that came to be considered superior to those of all others. It is a fascinating story, very clearly written and accessible – no previous knowledge of string instruments required.

Faber’s main interest here is the cultural construct of an instrument’s worth and appreciation, so luthiers, musicians, and instrument traders all get equal parts. He doesn’t pay as much attention to another group, the scientists who analysed everything from the acoustics of the wooden construction to the chemistry of the varnish. Maybe there is a popular science book about Stradivari’s instruments still waiting to be written.

* Microsoft Word doesn’t appear to know the word luthier – it’s a maker and repairer of string instruments.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

comeback for Europe's wildlife

We're in the middle of a global disaster for biodiversity, but here's a tiny speck of good news: a few dozen species of mammals and birds in Europe have recovered in recent decades after being severely threatened or even extinct in the wild. A report commissioned by Rewilding Europe analyses these cases. The hope is that understanding the underlying causes of these recoveries may help other species elsewhere.

Read all about this in my latest feature, illustrated with gorgeous animal portraits from the report:

Back from the brink

Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 21, R939-R943, 4 November 2013 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2013.10.039

Free access to full text and PDF link

Eurasian spoonbill. Its recovery shows that conservation of wetland habitat and nesting sites does help species to recover after dramatic decline. (©Jari Peltomäki/Wild Wonders of Europe and Rewilding Europe.)