A New York-based psychoanalyst and writer has beaten four British academics to win the Rhone-Poulenc science book prize.
Arno Karlen has fuelled the growing debate about whether writers or scientists are best qualified to write about science by saying that generally both do it "pretty badly". But, when pushed, he said: "Often the people who communicate a subject the best are the best people in their field."
Mr Karlen won the prize this week with Plague's Progress, a social history of man and disease. He beat evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, physicist Paul Davies, mathematician Ian Stewart and professor of English John Carey, as well as journalist and writer Stephen Budiansky.
Mr Karlen, 59, has led an eclectic life as an editor, writer and psychoanalyst. He spent 20 years preparing the book because he had been unable to find a publisher when he came up with the idea. The book deals with emerging slow viruses such as scrapie, mad cow disease and HTLV.
Mr Karlen, who gives lectures in human sexuality and medical practice at the State University medical school in New York, hopes to complete his doctorate by the end of the year. He attributed his success to the incubation period.
"I think both scientists and writers do it pretty badly. Most journalists could do a splendid job but they don't have the time," he said. Of scientists, he said: "They forget to speak English. They actually often put each other down for speaking clear English."