The Royal Society, a high powered English association dedicated to excellence in science, has just announced its Insight Investment Science Book Prize shortlist for 2017. The award founded in 1988, celebrates outstanding popular science writing from around the world, written for non-scientist audience. If you’re interested in seeing what the Royal Society believes to be among the best science writing in the world for this year, you’re in luck, because four of the six finalists are right here at The Field Library, ready to be charged out and read.
Let’s start with something fascinating and out there: Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey Smith. If you know anything about cephalopods (other than the 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea stereotype), you know that they’re fascinating creatures, with intelligence that’s especially surprising, given they’re invertebrates and almost everything about them is strange and different from more familiar mammals. Some have said that an octopus is as close as most of us are likely to come to meeting an intelligent alien (how’s that for blowing your mind?), and you have to ask yourself, how did intelligence develop at least twice, in different places, on earth? This book looks at the beginnings of consciousness, how it probably evolved in the ocean (as life began there), and then turns to consider the octopus, and how these mostly solitary creatures developed intelligence and what that means for them, and, by extension, for us. Frankly, just reading about the otherworldly octopus and what it can do is mind-blowing, so adding that to speculations about where consciousness and intelligence came from in the first place is a recipe for much boggling of the mind (in a good way).
If the development of consciousness doesn’t interest you, how about the possible conquest of death? That’s the subject of the wonderfully titled, To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell, which is also on the Royal Society’s shortlist. Once you start thinking of the human body, and its inevitable limitations, as merely a device that can be replaced when it starts wearing out (or before), you’re in another world, one which coexists with our more normal way of seeing the world. It’s not just speculative fiction writers who consider the possibility of human immortality and how it might come about. People are already working in cryonics, and biohackers are installing devices inside their own skins to increase their senses, while another group of scientists works on ways to protect humanity from the possible rise of artificial superintelligence (a la Terminator and its progeny), and the author investigates all these seemingly odd outposts of our society, asking not only what they’re doing, but what their efforts, if successful and followed up, would do to humanity and to our world.
Do you think of yourself as a singular creature? Well, that’s one way of looking at our bodies, but it might be very limiting, according to another shortlisted book, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and A Grander View of Life, by Ed Yong. What if you think of a human body as a vast ecosystem for different multitudes of microbes? Sometimes the things we can’t see are not only important, but absolutely vital to our survival. We usually think of our microbes (if we think of them at all) as bad things, germs that need to be eliminated, but as this book reveals, our microbiome allows us to digest food, shapes our bodies, protects us from diseases, and makes us who and what we are. This book takes us on a guided tour of the hosts of microbes that live in other living things, including us, and introduces us to scientists who are working on the cutting edge of microbiology, and always with a light touch and a sense of humor.
The one book in the shortlist that I’ve actually read is Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science and Society, by Cordelia Fine. I’ve already reviewed it here(spoiler alert: I loved it). Basically it’s a witty and entertaining (while still scientifically rigorous) rebuke to the “evolutionary psychology” ideas about how gender roles are genetically and evolutionarily predetermined to coincide with the roles we have in our modern society. Funny and fun to read, it’s the kind of book I’d love to see win a major prize.
The selection of the winner will be made in September, so if you want to be in the know before the award is given, you have time to read through these mind-boggling, excellent science books.