Novelist's quest for science

April 17, 1998

Novelist Ian McEwan is to chair the panel of judges for this year's Rhone-Poulenc prize for science books.

Mr McEwan is "a voracious reader of science", whose consumption of the genre has accelerated over the past ten years partly because of the wealth of excellent science writing available, he said.

Mr McEwan's most recent work, Enduring Love, featured a scientist as hero. He said he was drawn to writing on the relationship between mind and body; how biological thinking is informing philosophy; and neuroscience.

"I am also interested in evolutionary accounts of language and was very impressed by Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct," he said. The writer he holds in most esteem is E. O. Wilson, the Harvard-based biologist: "As a working scientist who also writes I think he is unrivalled. He is a very passionate writer."

Mr McEwan regrets not having studied science after 17. "I would have probably done something in the biological sciences. I do not think my mathematics was up to doing hard physics," he said.

But the lack of an advanced formal education in science is no barrier to chairing the panel for Rhone-Poulenc's general prize category, he said. "I think I know quite a lot. I have certainly read a lot. Rewarding the best scientific treatise is not the idea of this prize. We are more interested in works that appeal to the wider public and that requires a generalist approach."

Mr McEwan is excited about the growing synthesis of subjects. "We have Darwinian models applied to cosmology and if you want to talk about the evolution of language, then you have to deal with archaeology, cytology, psychology, neuroscience, human behaviour patterns and so on," he said.

"It is becoming very difficult to talk interestingly about any one thing without drawing on other subjects. And good science writers play a very important role in this synthesis," he said.

The winners of the Rhone-Poulenc awards will be announced at the Science Museum on June 9. A record 162 entries, 109 for the general category, were submitted.

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