Dr Camilla Pang, whose debut uses science to explore the complexities of human behaviour through the prism of her autism spectrum disorder, has won the prestigious Royal Society science book prize. At 28, the post-doctoral scientist is both the youngest writer ever to win the £25,000 prize and the first writer of colour.
Camilla Pang beat former winners Bill Bryson and Gaia Vince to take the award for Explaining Humans, which chair of judges Professor Anne Osbourn called “an intelligent and charming investigation into how we understand human behaviour, drawing on the author’s superpower of neurodivergence”. Pang hopes, to be “a voice for the neurodivergent community in shining a light on the fact that it’s OK to feel outlandish in a system that you’re basically allergic to because you’re designed to make a new one”.
The author, who has a PhD in biochemistry from UCL, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of eight, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at 26. She wrote Explaining Humans, she said, “in order to survive and process my thoughts into coherent modules”, creating a “manual for humans” she could consult, looking at what proteins, machine-learning and molecular chemistry can teach us about human behaviour, from decisions and conflict to relationships and etiquette.
“We get information from all of our different senses, but what if they’re all really loud, and everything’s really intense, and you’ve got no filter, so you’re stuck in this kind of soup of limbo when you’re trying to interpret these different signals that are really quite quiet? Most of the time, I was trying to figure out what was going on,” she said.
She wrote for herself, but also for her mother and her family. “Up until the age of maybe 16, it was really hard to communicate what was happening, and all my mum wanted to do was understand the person that she loved and made. So I wrote for her, and also on behalf of all the other mums out there, and carers and parents, who have a person that they want to understand,” she said. “They’re like, ‘How do I know this human so I can enable them? Am I going to upset them if I put on different perfume?’ Everyone’s got these different triggers. So it was a thank-you letter to my mum and also a love letter to science, to highlight how understanding and support can change someone’s life, by seeing what a person is, as opposed to what they should be.”
The prize is intended to “promote the accessibility and joy of popular science books to the public”. Previous winners include Stephen Hawking – a childhood hero of Pang’s, who read A Brief History of Time at the age of eight.