Riot announces shortlist for 2020 Royal Society Science Book Prize

  • Six game-changing reads for curious minds are shortlisted for prestigious prize for popular science writing.
  • Previous winners Bill Bryson and Gaia Vince and former shortlistee Jim Al-Khalili join three newcomers with books that take readers on a journey of self-discovery and social awareness.
  • “These books make science intriguing, accessible and exciting. Some raise awareness of the scientific process, and of our understanding that scientists are humans too. Others are a call to arms, asking us to consider our place in the universe and what we can bring to humanity in our various ways.” – Professor Anne Osbourn FRS, 2020 Chair of Judges.

The Royal Society today, Tuesday 22nd September, reveals the shortlist for the Royal Society Science Book Prize 2020, sponsored by Insight Investment. This year’s shortlisted books, chosen from over 172 submissions, represent the very best in popular science writing from around the world for a non-specialist audience.

Postdoctoral scientist and debut author, Dr Camilla Pang, is joined on the 2020 shortlist by Oxford scholar and expert in women’s economic empowerment, Linda Scott, who is nominated for her first solo book. Also joining the list for the first time is journalist and author Susannah Cahalan. These three newcomers are up against two previous winners, author Bill Bryson OBE FRS (A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2004) and Gaia Vince, science writer and broadcaster (Adventures in the Anthropocene, 2015) and previously shortlisted author and physicist, Jim Al-Khalili (Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, written with Johnjoe McFadden, 2015).

The full 2020 shortlist is (in order of author surname):

  • The World According to Physics by Jim Al-Khalili (Princeton University Press)
  • The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson (Transworld Publishers)
  • The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness by Susannah Cahalan (Canongate Books)
  • Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us about Life, Love and Relationships by Camilla Pang (Viking)
  • The Double X Economy: The Epic Power of Empowering Women by Linda Scott (Faber & Faber)
  • Transcendence: How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time by Gaia Vince (Allen Lane)

The judges praised the six authors on the rigorous scientific content of their books conveyed through engaging storytelling. They reflected that each book showed a unique perspective on a well-known subject or uncovered little known truths about everyday interactions in an accessible way for lay readers.

Chair of this year’s judging panel, Professor Anne Osbourn FRS, Group Leader at the John Innes Centre and Director of the Norwich Research Park Industrial Biotechnology Alliance, comments:

“This year’s shortlisted books represent carefully crafted explorations of the worlds both around and within us: the physical laws of the universe and the search for ultimate simplicity; the innermost workings of the human body (and its ultimate demise); an instruction manual for interpreting human behaviour;  the complex area of diagnosing and defining mental health;  the subordination and exclusion of women in developed and developing countries around the world, and the potential for unleashing women’s economic power for the greater good, and the evolution and potential fragility of the human super-organism Homo omnis , likened to a differentiating slime mould trying to ensure its survival by escaping an unfavourable soil environment.

“These books make science intriguing, accessible and exciting. Some raise awareness of the scientific process, and of our understanding that scientists are humans too. Others are a call to arms, asking us to consider our place in the universe and what we can bring to humanity in our various ways.  There is darkness, revelation and hope. There is inspiration.”

Four books on the shortlist explore the layered intricacies of what it means to be human. These books present unique perspectives and facts on the human body, providing illuminating insights on the history of psychiatry, human evolution, and navigating social norms.

In Explaining Humans, Dr Camilla Pang – diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of eight – examines life’s everyday interactions through a set of scientific principles, showing how thinking differently can be a superpower instead of a disability. Meanwhile, Bill Bryson’s The Body, explores the human anatomy, how it functions and its remarkable ability to heal itself. The book is packed with surprising facts, including the revelation that we blink so many times in a day that our eyes are shut for 23 minutes every day.

The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan follows up on her debut, Brain on Fire, in which she described her experience of being misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. In this new book, Cahalan investigates the troubled history of psychiatry, using psychologist David Rosenhan’s famous experiment – On Being Sane in Insane Places – as a case study. Cahalan questions whether this famous experiment is deeply flawed and, if so, what this means for our understanding of mental illness. In search of how humans came to be the dominant species, Gaia Vince’s Transcendence takes a fresh look at evolution and argues that the delicate combination of our genes, environments and cultures makes us smart. Vince shows how today we are all part of an unfolding social project leading us to a new chapter in our evolution.

Linda Scott coined the term ‘Double X Economy’ to describe the global economy of women. In The Double X Economy, Scott looks at the systemic nature of women’s economic exclusion, from the villages of Africa and the slums of Asia, to the boardrooms of London and the universities of the United States. Finally, Jim Al-Khalili appears on the shortlist for the second time with The World According to Physics. In this insightful book, Al-Khalili argues that the wonders of the universe should be appreciated by everyone, and that physics gives us the tools to better understand the universe and ourselves.

Half of the books on the shortlist come from independent publishers. Penguin Random House has titles from three imprints (Transworld, Viking and Allen Lane).

Founded in 1988, the Royal Society Science Book Prize exists to promote the accessibility and joy of popular science books to the public. For 32 years, the Prize has celebrated some of the very best in science writing, with topical subjects tackled by the Prize winners ranging from gender stereotyping (Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez, 2019, and Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine, 2017) to works exploring humanity’s impact on the environment (Adventures in the Anthropocene by Gaia Vince, 2015, and Six Degrees by Mark Lynas, 2008). At a time when science communication forms a central part of our daily discourse, the aim of the Prize is more relevant than ever.

Alongside Professor Anne Osbourn, the 2020 judging panel comprises: Blackwell’s Trade Buying Manager, Katharine Fry; journalist, Katy Guest; Royal Society University Research Fellow, Dr Kartic Subr, and actress and author Sophie Ward.

The winner of the 2020 Prize will be announced via a virtual awards ceremony streamed on the Royal Society website on 3rd November 2020. The winner will receive a cheque for £25,000, with £2,500 awarded to each of the five shortlisted authors.

Riot Senior Campaigns Manager James Douglas asks could 2020 prove a watershed year for games?

As we look forward to the launch of new consoles in just a few months, 2020 has already reminded us that games are about much more than teraflops and resolution. Major disruption has kickstarted a wave of change across society, and that is no less true for video games. An explosion in hardware sales means we now welcome millions of new players around the world. For the industry and its evangelists, that means new levels of scrutiny too.

For decades we’ve sought a place at the cultural table, advocating for games not just on the basis of aesthetic merit, but educational and economic grounds too. It is becoming clear, however, that we need meaningful change in the sector and its surrounding culture before we can really lay claim to that status.

We’ve seen recently that while this is a community quick to embrace technological innovation, it is often too slow when it comes to social change. Nowhere was this clearer than with the launch of The Last of Us: Part II and the nastiness that followed. The chapter summed up perfectly where we find ourselves in 2020. On the one hand, we can see a future characterised by sophisticated stories aimed at a much broader range of audiences. At the same time, there are those whose energy appears wholly devoted to making those involved in these trailblazing projects miserable.

And at studios like Ubisoft, we are reminded that the sector isn’t always the inclusive space we wish it to be, particularly for women. Amidst the anger, there is a wearying sense of déjà vu, particularly when you consider how similar injustices in film and TV were laid bare in relative prehistory.

But there is cause for optimism too. It is said that cultural change takes just 15% of a community to take root. Clearly, there is an appetite for games that better reflect society and are a little bolder in their storytelling. Let us hope such ambition rubs off. For Ubisoft, they have been quick to set out an apparently sincere attempt to right wrongs both historic and more recent. Meanwhile, women at Rocksteady attest to the studio’s efforts to create a safer environment for its staff, two years after management were accused of failing to prevent sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour.

At every turn, there are those working to steer the industry in the right direction. Studios have signed up to UKIE’s #RaiseTheGame pledge in droves, committing to create more diverse workforces and greater diversity of content. Meanwhile, advocacy groups including @BlackGirlGamers and @POCinPlay grow in influence. This is a shift reflected across our culture and entertainment industries, something I’ve been involved in through my own work at Riot Communications.

So what else can we do? It feels like there are players out there who simply don’t know that women make games. For every Kojima or Druckmann, how many female game directors can we name? Initiatives like the Women in Games awards and the Women in Games conference are a good start.

The BBC’s commitment to more thoughtful discussion of games is welcome too, with major releases now getting air time on flagship arts programmes such as Front Row. That such discussions are led by young women like Elle Osili-Wood and Aoife Wilson is equally encouraging.

Few of us doubt that games can impact society as film and TV do. But the industry can be its own worst enemy. We need to be united in our opposition to intolerable behaviour, be it online or in our offices, while asking if the environment we’re creating is anything other than the inclusive haven of imagination we want it to be. If we can do that, then the recognition we crave will surely follow.

Riot Communications x Vintage x Yuval Noah Harari

Following on from our success of launching the international phenomenon SAPIENS by Yuval Noah Harari (2014), we are teaming up with publishers Vintage and Yuval Noah Harari once again to launch: SAPIENS – A GRAPHIC HISTORY. In collaboration with comics artists David Vandermeulen (co-writer) and Daniel Casanave (illustrator), this graphic edition is a radical reworking of the original book – which has now sold over 16 million copies and been translated into 60 languages – and will be published in four volumes starting with Volume 1: The Birth of Humankind

Preena Gadher, MD, Riot Communications said: “Promoting the original book SAPIENS back in 2014 is a personal career highlight, and since then we have had the privilege of working with Vintage and Yuval Harari on every one of his books to date (HOMO DEUS, 2016; 21 LESSONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY (2018). Harari is one of our greatest global public intellectuals and so it is wonderful to see SAPIENS adapted in this graphic format, aimed at adults and young adults who might not usually pick up a history or science book. I hope we can introduce a whole new audience to Harari and his exhilarating ideas.”

SAPIENS: A GRAPHIC HISTORY is out on 12th November 2020.