Endangered award: The science book prize

Business is booming in the sector, so why are its annual awards under threat? Steve Connor reports

Steve Connor
Wednesday 20 October 2010 00:00

The only book prize in Britain dedicated to popular science could close this week with its final annual awards following the failure to find a commercial sponsor for the competition.

Last-minute attempts to find a funding partner who could be announced before this year's ceremony at the Royal Society in London tomorrow evening have failed, meaning that the annual prize will almost certainly have to be abandoned after 22 years.

The Royal Society Prize for Science Books has in the past honoured some of the most famous names in science writing, from the late American zoologist Stephen Jay Gould and the British geneticist Steve Jones, to the Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking and the hugely popular travel writer Bill Bryson.

The prize began in 1988 and was seen as a way of bringing the art of science writing into mainstream literary culture, although it struggled to get the recognition of other literary prizes, such as the Man Booker, the Orange and the Costa Book Awards.

Its last commercial sponsors, the French pharmaceuticals company Aventis, pulled out of funding the prize in 2007 and since then it has been supported by the Royal Society, with some help from the Beecroft Trust, a private charity. However, the president of the Royal Society, Lord Rees, said that the society can no longer support the book prize on its own and, without a commercial sponsor coming forward, it is unlikely that the competition will continue.

"Science is an integral part of our culture and it is immensely important that the joy, wonder and excitement of scientific discovery is effectively communicated to all," Lord Rees said.

"The [prize] has celebrated the very best science writing since 1988 and helped to encourage engagement with science. The Royal Society greatly values the prizes, however, in these tough economic times we have to secure a sponsor to ensure they can continue in future years," he said.

Steve Jones, who won in 1994 with The Language of the Genes, said it was "an emblematic piece of bad news in a week when British science has been, perhaps terminally, trashed".

Professor Steven Rose of the Open University, who won the prize in 1993 for The Making of Memory, said that it would be sad for science books and education in general. "True, the prize never achieved the fame and publicity surrounding the Man Booker or other literary prizes, and I'm not sure whether it had a great effect on sales," Professor Rose said.

"But when I won it in the 1990s the sponsors brought out a special edition of the book and gave a copy to every secondary school library in the country, thereby making the prizewinning books accessible to school students who otherwise would probably never come across them," he said.

Other former winners of the £10,000 award have included the fertility doctor Lord Robert Winston, who won the children's category with What Makes Me, Me?, and the American anthropologist Jared Diamond, who won it twice, once in 1992 for The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee and again in 1998 for Guns, Germs and Steel.

This year's short-list is the usual eclectic mix. Television star Brian Cox, with co-author Jeff Forshaw, may be the favourite with an exposition of Einstein's famous equation, but The Independent believes it will be a dead heat between Marcus Chown's insightful account of physical phenomena and Nick Lane's wonderful update on evolutionary theory.

A World Without Ice, Henry N Pollack

Ice and people have interacted for millennia. This book is, of course, about the impact of global warming on the huge volumes of frozen water at the poles. The floating sea ice of the Arctic is disappearing, the massive glaciers and sheet ice are melting and we are heading for a world that is largely free of ice for the first time in human history. Henry Pollack explains the dangers this poses and why we need to take action to prevent what he sees as a grave threat to humanity.

God's Philosophers, James Hannam

James Hannam shines a light on the Dark Ages and finds that they were not quite as murky as we thought. In fact, he argues in this history of early European science that the scientific revolution of the Renaissance owes much to the unsung heroes and philosophers who had lived several centuries earlier in the medieval world of Europe. A fascinating read for anyone interested in the history of science and if this were a history book prize then this would be a likely winner.

Everyday Practice of Science, Frederick Grinnell

Science is meant to be a dispassionate exercise in finding the truth through empiricism. But, as Frederick Grinnell points out, scientists bring their own subjective interests and passions to their work. This book is more about a description of the scientific method, rather than the telling of a scientific story. Unlikely to win, as it is aimed more at those interested in how science is done, rather than those wanting to know what science can tell us.

Life Acsending, Nick Lane

Nick Lane is one of the most exciting science writers of our time. His book charts the long history of life on Earth by describing the 10 greatest inventions of living organisms, from photosynthesis to sex. Even death gets a starring role in this modern update of Darwinism. It reads like a smooth chronicle, has great subject matter and is well argued. Could easily take the top prize tomorrow night because it's a book written on a big landscape.

We Need to Talk About Kelvin, Marcus Chown

Not to be confused with Kevin – Lord Kelvin was a physicist who gave his name to the thermodynamic temperature scale. Marcus Chown is easily one of the best writers on physics and cosmology and here he looks at everyday phenomena, such as the warming rays of sunshine streaming through a window and explains what they are really about with his crystal-clear logic. A serious contender for the big prize tomorrow night.

Why Does E=mc2? Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

It is perhaps the most famous equation in science, yet how many of us really know what it's about? Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw take Einstein's description of the relationship between energy and matter, pull it apart and put it together again, with some detours into space and time along the way. Not an easy read, but not an easy subject. Stephen Fry may be dazzled by Cox's enthusiasm, but it remains to be seen whether the same goes for the judges.

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