The British Society for the History of Science (BSHS)

The British Society for the History of Science

Dingle Prize

The BSHS Dingle Prize is awarded every two years to “the best book in the history of science (broadly construed) published in English … which is accessible to a wide audience of non-specialists.” The prize is very much in keeping with the Society’s concern to communicate history of science to broad audiences.

The winning book should present some aspect of the field in an engaging and comprehensible manner and should also show proper regard for historical methods and the results of historical research: for example, it might re-examine a well-known historical incident or achievement, or bring new perspective to previously neglected figures or fields in the past.

The value of the Dingle Prize is £300. The winner may also have the opportunity to give a public lecture or presentation, sponsored by the BSHS, on the subject of their book.

The Prize was established in 1997 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Society, and is named after the mathematician, astronomer and philosopher of science Herbert Dingle, a founder member of the BSHS.

2013 Dingle Prize

The BSHS is delighted to award the 2013 Dingle Prize to David Wright for Downs: The History of a Disability. Published by Oxford University Press this excellent book is a genuine attempt to engage a wide audience of non-specialists in a way that reflects some of the major virtues of current historiography of medicine and science. The judges commented that Wright has produced “a terrific book” and “a little gem”, which “has valuable contributions to make to current debates” in the history of science and medicine. In dealing with the history of Down’s syndrome – a subject for which very few other wide-ranging historical studies exist, but for which there is a substantial secondary literature from other perspectives – Wright has also achieved the Prize’s requirement to “re-examine a well-known historical incident or achievement, or bring new perspective to previously neglected figures or fields in the past.” Wright’s book faced stiff competition from over sixty other nominations, and this represents the largest field of entries ever for this competition.

The judges also strongly commend both D. Graham Burnett’s The Sounding of the Whale (University of Chicago Press) and Jon Agar’s Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond (Polity). Both books are truly extraordinary in their depth (Burnett) and breadth (Agar), and make significant contributions to the history of science and more broadly to our understanding of twentieth-century history. They are also remarkable in being books that, while written primarily with a scholarly audience in mind, are nevertheless accessible and of interest to a wider audience, and an excellent advertisement for the discipline.

Judging Panel: Dr Simon Chaplin (Chair), Dr Tim Boon, Dr Sabine Clarke, Dr Sophie Forgan, Dr Melanie Keene, Dr James Stark (BSHS Outreach and Education Committee Chair).

2011 Dingle Prize

In their timescales, styles and physical formats, the 40 books nominated for the 2011 Dingle Prize represented well the diversity of popular history of science writing published in 2009 and 2010.

The longlist of 16 books ranged from introductory surveys to biographies of people and objects, local history and media tie-ins. They introduced famous and unsung heroes, and disciplines from mathematics to genetics. They travelled from the ancient middle-east to contemporary Silicon Valley; and they were authored by historians of science, journalists and science writers. This diversity was an encouraging sign of publishers’ appetite for the field, particularly for twentieth century topics — yet it also made it difficult to compare some very different texts (e.g. a synoptic 400-year history versus one detailed case-study versus an introductory think-piece for mathematicians). Nevertheless the judges unanimously agreed on a shortlist of 4 books:

  • Richard Dunn: The Telescope. A Short History (National Maritime Museum, 2009).
  • Patricia Fara: Science. A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009).
  • James Hannam: God’s Philosophers. How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science (Icon, 2009).
  • Sean Johnston: History of Science. A Beginner’s Guide (Oneworld, 2009).

All 4 books impressed the judges as being engagingly written, appealingly presented and historically insightful. Any would have been a worthy winner. But the judges agreed that in its admirably broad scope, its historical and historiographical depth and its engaging re-presentation of the best of recent scholarship, the 2011 Dingle Prize should be awarded to Patricia Fara for “Science: A Four Thousand Year History.”

In her acceptance speech, given in absentia at the 2011 annual BSHS conference held in Exeter, Patricia said:

I feel so overwhelmed by this honour that I hardly know how to begin expressing my appreciation. I should start by apologizing for not being at Exeter: I had no idea until Tuesday that I would win this prize and by then, it was too late to alter my existing commitments. More importantly, I’d like to extend my deepest gratitude to everybody who was involved in this decision. I am particularly proud to receive this accolade from a Society of scholars who, above all others, are so well-placed to appreciate my book’s shortcomings. This award means far far more to me than the pleasure I’ve gained by seeing my book reviewed in a newspaper, sitting on the shelves of a shop or translated into a foreign language.

As an eighteenth-century historian, I realise that for 3900 years-worth of knowledge, I relied heavily on the expertise of other people. As well as turning to books and papers, I also asked for help from friends and colleagues, who were extraordinarily generous in reading drafts and offering me advice. So although it was me who wrote the words and made the mistakes, I do see this book as a collective enterprise.

Herbert Dingle left school when he was only 14, but eleven years later, won a scholarship to Imperial College. I’ve partially followed in his footsteps by going to Imperial College as an MSc student 18 years after graduating. More significantly, Dingle’s subsequent career as an astronomer is a tribute to the benefits of government investment in widening participation. Since this book was published, I have spent much of my time promoting access to higher education and trying to ensure that this country does not regress to a system based on privilege rather than ability. Like Dingle, I’ve been lucky enough to benefit from a late start in academia, and I hope that this book will fulfil Dingle’s expectation of making other people as enthusiastic about the history of science as I am.

Patricia Fara
14 July 2011

Previous winners of the Dingle Prize

  • 2009: Thomas Dixon for Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. In commending Dixon’s book the judges wrote: “Using a wide-range of examples Dixon beautifully demonstrates how the history of science can illuminate a complex issue of contemporary importance – the relationship between science and religion. The book is historically sophisticated, intellectually engaging, and thought provoking. It is clearly and concisely written, well argued, and accessible to the non-expert; it should appeal to a wide readership not only beyond the history of science community but also outside academia.”
  • 2007: Philip Ball for Elegant Solutions: Ten Beautiful Experiments in Chemistry. London: Royal Society of Chemistry, 2005
  • 2005: Stephen Pumfrey for Latitude and the Magnetic Earth: the True Story of Queen Elizabeth’s Most Distinguished Man of Science. Icon Books, 2003
  • 2003: Ken Alder for The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error that Transformed the World. London: Little, Brown, 2002
  • 2001: Deborah Cadbury for The Dinosaur Hunters. London: Fourth Estate, 2000
  • 1999: Steven Shapin for The Scientific Revolution. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996
  • 1997: Adrian Desmond and James Moore for Darwin. London: Penguin, 1992

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