Sheldrake wins Royal Society Science Book Prize with 'illuminating' fungi book

Sheldrake wins Royal Society Science Book Prize with 'illuminating' fungi book

Merlin Sheldrake has won the £25,000 Royal Society Science Book Prize for Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures (Bodley Head), praised by judges for its "scientific rigour" and for "illuminating an important but little understood topic".

Sheldrake was named the winner during a ceremony at the Royal Society on 29th November which was also streamed via its YouTube channel. He said he was "thrilled" to receive the prize, adding "numberless thank yous to the gifted researchers—enthusiasts, amateurs (in the true sense), scientists and holders of traditional knowledge—whose vision, curiosity, and insights have illuminated the wonders of fungal life".

Entanged Life explores the world of fungi, organisms with no brain which can still solve complex problems and manipulate animal behaviour. Sheldrake received a PhD in tropical ecology from Cambridge University for his work on underground fungal networks in tropical forests in Panama, and his book details how the existence of fungi predates human history by millions of years and how, without them, plants would not have evolved onto land, an essential milestone without which humans would not exist. 

Chair of the 2021 judging panel, Professor Luke O’Neill, said: “Entangled Life is a fantastic account of the world of fungi, which to the uninitiated might seem unpromising as a topic, but which Merlin Sheldrake brings alive in the most vivid of ways. We learn all kinds of interesting things about fungi, from how they helped plants colonise land (which means without them we wouldn’t be here) to how they form huge networks allowing trees to communicate (in the form of the ‘Wood Wide Web’), to stories of fungus-gathering enthusiasts, how fungi might help save the planet by digesting plastic, and even how they can manipulate our minds. This is science writing at its very best, which yet again emphasises how the scientific method is so important in our effort to understand the world around us. Entangled Life is an important, scientifically rigorous and most of all entertaining read.”

Brian Cox, the Royal Society Professor for Public Engagement in Science,  added:  “At a time when science is front and centre of everyone’s lives, making it accessible and understandable through great writing is more important than ever. The best science writing invites people to explore the world around them and view it in a new way, and Entangled Life is a perfect example. Exploring nature always delivers insights that are surprising and often resonate way beyond the initial research or subject matter, and Merlin’s wonderfully written book is a perfect example. From antibiotics to parasitic ‘zombie infections’, Entangled Life brings the reader face to face with the beauty and terror of nature.”

The book was picked from a shortlist also featuring The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers by Emily Levesque (Oneworld); Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor (Penguin Life);  The End of Bias: How We Change Our Minds by Jessica Nordell (Granta Books); The Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness by Suzanne O’Sullivan (Picador) and Science Fictions: Exposing Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science by Stuart Ritchie (Bodley Head).