A view From the Bridge

Humboldt biography wins Royal Society prize

Alexander von Humboldt (oil painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806).

Alexander von Humboldt (oil painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806).

If fame were measured in namesakes, Alexander von Humboldt might reign supreme. The moniker of the brilliant biogeographer, naturalist and explorer graces dozens of species and phenomena, from the hog-nosed skunk Conepatus humboldtii to a sinkhole in Venezuela. Yet the Prussian polymath’s reputation has lagged somewhat behind that of, say, Charles Darwin. Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature went some way towards changing all that. Now this immensely acclaimed biography is burnished anew by winning the Royal Society’s Science Book Prize, sponsored by Insight Investment.

Wulf writes as if electrified by the fierce intellect of her subject. The Invention of Nature is also a model of concision, I feel, given the range of  Humboldt’s prodigious findings over his long life (1769–1859). He defined climate zones, predicted climate change, experimented with geomagnetism and conducted a gruelling five-year expedition in South America, discovering the Peru Current and numerous plant species, making a record ascent of Chimborazo and amassing 30 volumes of data.

Andrea Wulf.

Andrea Wulf.

Antonina Gern

Wulf’s tour de force is in good company, as one of the six that were up for the prize (and all reviewed in Nature).

Tim Birkhead’s The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg (Bloomsbury) (reviewed here) is a 360-degree tour of the avian egg, unshelling the chequered history of oology and the natural history of the thing itself — from formation in the ovary to the functions of their elegant colouration. As reviewer John Marzluff noted, we have yet to crack all their mysteries: “Why, for example, does the egg of a chicken travel through the hen pointed end first until the very last minute, when it turns through 180° on the horizontal plane to be laid blunt end first?”

Birkhead chose the ubiquitous. In The Hunt for Vulcan: How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet and Deciphered the Universe (Head of Zeus) (reviewed here), Thomas Levenson chronicles the nonexistent: a planet hypothesised to explain oddities in the orbit of Mercury, only to be quashed by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. In the telling, Levenson achieves what many science writers aspire to — a narrative weaving discoveries, backstories and implications into a synthesised tapestry.

From history to the here and now — Jo Marchant’s Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind Over Body (Canongate) (reviewed here) is a revved-up, research-packed explication of the use of mind in medicine, from meditation to guided visualisation. Marchant’s nimble reportage on the work of scientists in novel fields such as psychoneuroimmunology and her discussion of placebos are as fresh as her reminders of how stress and poverty affect wellbeing are timely.

Equally apropos for our disordered times is The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World by Oliver Morton (Granta) (reviewed here). Morton’s journey through climate fixes is an assured tour of the science, the history of climate interventions and, as reviewer Jane Long noted, the “ethical, political and social implications if climate intervention became available”.

Finally, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History (Bodley Head) (reviewed here) is a book of two halves. Mukherjee’s treatment of early genetics controversially skips over some complexities, but  reviewer Matthew Cobb felt it picks up from the 1970s onward with compelling detail on clinical work, the burgeoning of biotech and discoveries such as the genetic basis of Huntington’s disease.

Certainly, from Mendel to CRISPR–Cas9, the story of genetics has been a wonder. Yet it’s just a strand in the grand scientific saga that, luckily for us, continues to inspire fine writers.

The judges of this year’s prize included chair Bill Bryson, whose books include A Short History of Nearly Everything, which won the Royal Society’s Aventis Prize; lecturer and Royal Society University Research Fellow Clare Burrage; American evolutionary ecologist and ornithologist Devorah Bennu (GrrlScientist); author and Science Museum Group director of external affairs Roger Highfield; and award-winning author Alastair Reynolds.


For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.



  1. Johan Math

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  2. William Anderson

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    William Anderson said:

    Royal Society saved their reputation by choosing this book. Some of the shortlist were distinctly non scientific and choosing one of them would have done damage.