Royal Society book award tonight: Matthew is a contender!

September 24, 2015 • 11:00 am

As I’ve mentioned before, Matthew Cobb, who writes often for this site, is a candidate for the Royal Society’s Winton Prize for science books. His book, Life’s Greatest Secret: The Story of the Race to Crack the Genetic Code, is one of six contenders (you can get a pdf of the first chapter for free at each book’s link), and the grand winner gets a big cheque for £25,000! (Matthew already got £2500 for being shortlisted, but of course for a scientist the honor is the recognition, not the dosh.) The shortlist:

  • David Adam for The Man Who Couldn’t Stop: OCD and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought
  • Alex Bellos for Alex Through the Looking Glass: How Life Reflects Numbers, and Numbers Reflect Life
  • Jon Butterworth for Smashing Physics
  • Matthew Cobb for Life’s Greatest Secret: The Story of the Race to Crack the Genetic Code
  • Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden for Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology
  • Gaia Vince for Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet we Made

The event will be hosted by Brian Cox, and will be livestreamed at either this site or this one beginning at 18:30 UK time and lasting an hour (the link will appear at about 18:00, when doors open). Matthew tells me that the winner will be announced around 19:30 UK time. And although he tells me that he’s already won in the sense of being nominated, I’m pulling for him to take the Big Prize itself. Matthew’s book is really very good, an intriguing detective story that happens to be true. As I said in my full blurb (condensed for the cover), and this is no exaggeration:

Life’s Greatest Secret is the logical sequel to Jim Watson’s The Double Helix. While Watson and Crick deserve their plaudits for discovering the structure of DNA, that was only part of the story. Beginning to understand how that helix works—how its DNA code is turned into bodies and behaviors—took another 15 years of amazing work by an army of dedicated men and women. These are the unknown heroes of modern genetics, and their tale is the subject of Cobb’s fascinating book. Every now and again I had to stop reading because the amazement overload was too great.”



29 thoughts on “Royal Society book award tonight: Matthew is a contender!

  1. If Matthew wins for writing that terrific book, there will difficulty talking to him when he is wearing the crown, holding the scepter and having the purple robe around his shoulders.

  2. MC’s book is good, though cannot vouch for any details. I enjoyed it and it was clear and fun to read.

    But what’s this one about “quantum biology” – seems that’s missing a few levels.

    1. I was wondering if that was hokum, but then I dimly recall some very important emergent properties in living things that are said (I think) to come out of the quantum realm. One is that photons directly boost the energy of electrons in plant chloroplasts, and that causes the energy of other electrons to also raise their energy level, apparently because of a quantum weirdness. I am not sure if that is right, but if so then its really important.

      1. Suitably interpreted that’s routine chemistry – photodissocation of bromine to form free radicals for making peroxides, for example. Any (bio)chemists care to comment on what this is about?

  3. I’ve actually read the Alex Bellos book, but I would never dream of casting a vote based on which one is closest to my own field of studies.

  4. Very cool Matthew! All the best!

    I’m not sure at the wisdom of scheduling the awards at the same time and city as an All Blacks world cup match though. 🙂

  5. I read Matthew’s book at your recommendation and enjoyed it very much. He has a talent for historical research and a lively writing style. I probably learned as much about genetics from this book as from any other. Placing the unraveling of the code in an historical context works well, allowing the reader to follow the thinking of researchers down the blind alleys as well as the successes. Good luck, Matthew.

  6. I am right now reading the freely available pdf of chapter 1, and I just had to hit the back button to tell y’all that in the first paragraphs I learned a cool thing that I did not know about Gregor Mendel. I had thought that he sort of stumbled into doing his breeding experiments on peas. But here I learned that his work was actually part of a much larger and organized effort that was promoted by others to understand the nature of inheritance because there was a need in his region to scientifically breed better quality wool in sheep.
    Well, back to reading.

    1. Can you tell me where to get that PDF? I’m tossing up whether to buy the book (because my library is overflowing) and a read of Ch 1 might give me a taste of whether it’s compulsive reading for me.

      (I tried Googling but I have suspicions that some of the PDFs out there aren’t quite kosher)


      1. From Jerry’s first paragraph above:

        “…one of six contenders (you can get a pdf of the first chapter for free at each book’s link)…”

        “six contenders” is the hotlink that will take you to the right place.

  7. How does the book’s description of the events compare to that in Horace Freeland Judson’s 1979 book _The Eighth Day of Creation_?

    1. On my list of to read books.

      Just wondering if Matthew or anyone else knows if the DNA gel electrophoresis (or whatever they are called now) on the cover of the book is a random artistic graphic or if it has any significance.

  8. I’ve read “Life’s Greatest Secret” and it gives you the story both before, after, and during the search for DNA’s structure. It shows the real process of scientific discovery and both the collaborative and competitive sides of it.
    I’ve read “The Double Helix” twice. Yet, it is critical to read MC’s account of even that period of time. He is not just writing from the vantage point of just one principal. Highly recommended.

  9. Great book- good stories and flew by at a very quick pace-excellent writing really. My only qualm is that I felt like the explosion in the 80’s and 90’s was rushed-I really wanted some more detail on forensics- how/when/why/where did we discover that there is a unique and easily isolated ‘fingerprint’?

  10. Update: Sadly, our Matthew didn’t win (Gaia Vince did), but he reports to me that he had a great time, and also gave a shout-out to WEIT. I watched the whole show live, and was astounded when Matthew not only mentioned my book, but extolled it at length. Thanks to him for that, and also for his gripping book.

  11. Congrats on the nomination, Matthew! I know from the posts you’ve done here over the years that it will be an excellent read.

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