MY 2011 LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE SPEECH

Published by Gregory Benford on February 2nd, 2012

The Times asked me to present the titles vying for the Best Science Book and describe them, then hand the award to the winner. (Oren Harman, rather a surprise to the audience but not me.) I met many writers I’d read for years — M.G. Lord, Ken Turan (the Times movie reviewer, very reliable). Harry Turtledove came, a treat.

Thanks to those from the literary and film world. I come from the distant land of Reason. There are some connections, though. A friend, concerned about the Japanese nuclear accidents, recently asked me why plutonium, if it was so dangerous, was named after a Disney character.

Maybe this is why, in speaking to the public, scientists naturally are more precise and guarded in their claims than ordinary people. Often the public reads this as stand-offish, snobby, or even as deceptive. Similarly, scientists often view their colleagues who simplify or describe broadly as prostituting themselves, probably because they are grasping for the spotlight. Neither is an insightful view, of course. The gulf here arises from a genuine difference in social and conversational signals. Bridging it demands an adroit sense of balance.

Some scientists manage it, such as E.O. Wilson and Lewis Thomas. Others like Carl Sagan do an admirable job but provoke suspicions among their colleagues. Sagan particularly was denied election to the National Academy of Sciences in a vote in which his astronomer colleagues favored him, but others, notably the particle physics community, gave him quite a few negative votes. Perhaps not surprisingly, no practicing astronomer has assumed Sagan’s role, and the world is poorer for it.

Oren Harman, The Price of Altruism: George Price and the Search for the Origins of Kindness (W. W. Norton & Company)
Analyzing subtle currents in our social world demands rigor. George Price showed how to so this mathematically for any social animal, not just us, and illuminated a Darwinian social world. This book makes his case.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Scribner)
Cancer is a powerful metaphor—our bodies attacking ourselves—and this charts its terrifying implications.

Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury USA)
If you talk loud enough, you can shout down the voices of reason. This books shows how, with sobering implications. Sobering, yes, but this book is enough to drive you to drink.

Lauren Redniss, Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout (It Books/HarperCollins)
Love and physics! How can you beat a love story with Nobel winners in the cast? You can’t.

Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown)
As an identical twin, I’m interested in genetics. It helps to have a backup copy! Henrietta Lacks lives on in trillions of her cancerous cells, still used in labs as tools in research that benefits us all. Does society owe her heirs? Not legally, but this books raises unsettling questions.



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