Skip to main content

The Prize (SF) - Geoffrey Cooper ****

Some would prefer to label The Prize as lab lit rather than science fiction, as there is nothing in the science, apart from a non-existent drug, that isn't perfectly feasible, but I find the distinction artificial. What Geoffrey Cooper, a former professor and cancer researcher, has produced here is an engaging and page-turning thriller with a scientific context.

I was a little doubtful when I read the opening - the wording seemed a little too Dan Brown for my liking - but by the time I was into the second of the very short chapters (the whole book is quite short) I was hooked. The actual medical research part - about a drug that can reverse early onset of Alzheimers - is secondary to the fascinating insights Cooper brings to the machinations of a fictional science community. We tend to think of scientists as being noble and above suspicion, but here we get as much self-promotion, sexual predatory nature and administrative incompetence as you'd have expected from an episode of Dallas. I'm not saying - and I'm sure Cooper isn't either - that all science activity is like this, but particularly where there are the twin drivers of the potential of a Nobel Prize (the one in the book's title) and of patents worth millions, it wouldn't be surprising if there weren't hints of reality here.

The storyline features a well-established, middle-aged (male) expert in the field, itching to win the Nobel Prize, but challenged by a younger, female newcomer. When the main character, Pam, makes a breakthrough, a combination of a postdoc who feels she's been betrayed by her lab head and an unpleasant and weak supervisor makes it possible that Pam's career will be ruined. Throw in suspicion of murder and things don't look too good for her.

If I'm honest, the mechanics of the thriller part are fairly simple - perhaps there could have been a few more twists and turns - but the execution of it is good and I genuinely had to keep turning those pages. (The former occupation of the main character's boyfriend was kind of convenient, incidentally.)

The comparison with Dan Brown at the start was apt. Brown's writing style is nothing to write home about - it's often terrible - but he knows exactly how to keep a thriller moving and the audience engaged. And, of course, Brown has set a book in CERN and has a central character who's an academic. Cooper may not have put as much in the way of plot twists into this book as Brown would, but where he has total supremacy is in his understanding of the academic and scientific world. The characters in The Prize may be extreme examples, but I suspect most academics would recognise their types - and Cooper manages to make subjects like the struggle for tenure and the attempts to win a Nobel more interesting than some unlikely sounding Illuminati conspiracy.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…