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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Jim Al-Khalili

Photo by Nick Smith Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology; and The World According to Physics. His latest book is The Joy of Science . Why joy?  While I focus more in the book on the process of science itself to gain knowledge about the world, I also wanted to get across the fact that science is so much more than hard facts and lessons in critical thinking.  Science helps us see the world more deeply, enriches us, enlightens us.  The closer we look, the more we can see and the more we can wonder. I feel

Transformer - Nick Lane *****

This is probably the best book on biology (and more specifically biochemistry) that I've ever read. Ever since Richard Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene , we've been dazzled by the importance of the genetic code (or, as Lane points out in one of his many asides, what should really be called the genetic cipher) - but this focus has tended to give an exaggerated importance to the information stored there. Of course it's essential to life - but as this book explores, chemistry and energy are what life is really about. Nick Lane points out that there is no difference in the information in an organism just before and just after it dies - but there's quite a lot of difference in terms of its life. Biology and chemistry can both be extremely difficult to put across in popular science. Biology because it's so complicated with vast numbers of molecules and processes involved, and chemistry because, dare I say it, it can appear a bit dull. What Lane does wonderfully well is to

Wonderdog - Jules Howard *****

As Jules Howard acknowledges, there have been plenty of books about what makes a dog tick, whether they are training manuals, evolutionary examinations such as The Wolf Within or ethological studies of humans' closest animal partner such as If Dogs Could Talk . But most of Jules Howard's Wonderdog takes us into the roles that dogs have played in advancing science. Some of this material is fairly gruesome. We discover, for example, dogs' importance to medical research, particularly at a time when experimenting on animals had few ethical limits. What makes the book enjoyable is the way the Howard ties in his history with engaging stories - such as the brown dog statue, put up in Battersea in 1907 as a memorial to a dog horribly misused by vivisectionists, only for the statue to be destroyed by the council to bring an end to frequent attacks by infuriated medical students. (The statue has since been replaced.) Similarly, dogs have proved valuable in widening our understandin