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

Making Sense of Chaos - Doyne Farmer *****

This is a remarkable book, pulling together two key threads - chaos theory and economics. Doyne Farmer has a reputation as someone who breaks the mould: famously, he dropped out of studying physics at graduate level, working with a handful of others to put together a wearable computer (back in the 70s, when such a thing would have seemed pretty much impossible) to enable them to successfully beat the odds at casinos, picking up on the slight biases in roulette wheels. Now, he presents a powerful case for applying chaos theory to economics, modelling economies in a totally different, agent-driven way rather than the traditional approach taken by economists. This combines for me the impact of two books I've read and greatly admired, but in both cases had felt that there needed to be a next step. The first of these was Chaos by James Gleick, which got me all fired up about chaos theory, but proved a bit of a let down as it was great to explain why, for example, it's difficult to

Quantum Drama - Jim Baggott and John Heilbron ***

On a first glance of the cover you might think that Jim Baggott and John Heilbron were brilliant Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein impersonators. In fact Baggott is an excellent popular science writer and Heilbron was an esteemed historian of science, both specialising in quantum physics. There's another way the cover is misleading - you might think this was an in-depth exploration of Bohr and Einstein's relationship. The topics they argued about certainly come into it, but instead this is detailed look at how quantum theory developed. I've read a lot of books on quantum physics, but I've never come across one that goes into such painstaking detail of every step along the way, introducing the work of a good number of physicists who rarely make it into the public eye. These range from John von Neumann - well known but usually sidelined as a quantum physicist - to the likes of Oskar Klein and Hans Kramers. Similarly, Baggott and Heilbron go into many (many) steps along the w

Charge - Frank Close ****

Anyone who writes popular science books that are so thick they could act as doorstops should pay more attention to what Frank Close achieves. In a slim, small volume he manages to pack in a huge amount of information without compromising at all on quality. His latest such book is Charge - dealing with various types of charge from electrical to colour (in the quark sense). This starts off brilliantly with a point about electrical charge that had never occurred to me. Close tells us that with every breath you inhale sufficient electrons to absorb a charge of around 15,000 coulombs 'enough to spark 1000 bolts of lightning'. And if breathing steadily, the equivalent current would be about 3,000 amps. Thankfully, though, the balancing positive charge from the nucleus means you don't fry. (This is slightly misleading as the comparison with lightning only works if you consider charge - the current in a lightning bolt is typically about 10 times higher as it lasts a much briefer t