Shortlist for 2022 Royal Society Science Book Prize announced

26 September 2022

The Royal Society has today announced the six titles shortlisted for the 2022 Royal Society Science Book Prize, sponsored by Insight Investment, which celebrates the best popular science writing from across the globe.

There are two debut authors on the list: award-winning physician and researcher Professor Rose Anne Kenny and Professor Peter Stott, who has played a leading role in the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They are joined by Nick Davidson, documentary filmmaker and amateur geologist; Dutch primatologist and New York Times bestselling author Frans de Waal; Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust and member of the UK government's SAGE committee, with co-author Anjana Ahuja, Financial Times science columnist; and palaeontologist, evolutionary biologist and Nature editor Dr Henry Gee. None of the authors has previously been shortlisted for the Prize, and five out of six books are from independent publishers.

The full shortlist – selected from 219 submissions published between 1 July 2021 and 30 September 2022 – is:

Professor Maria Fitzgerald, chair of the 2022 judges and an internationally recognised neuroscientist specialising in pain in infants and children, says:

“The process of shortlisting the Royal Society Book Prize was a delight. It confirmed the high standard of contemporary science writing and the continued originality and talent of writers who can convey the excitement and impact of advances in science to the public. All six books are excellent reads and the panel is confident that they represent the very best of science writing today. 

“The books fall (unintentionally) into three broad categories.  Two books give us inside stories of the coronavirus pandemic and of climate change denial; another two take us on journeys through time, but with very different approaches to the history of our planet; and two explore the human condition, focusing on ageing and on gender. Written with style and dynamism, they are all evidence based while remaining engaging, enjoyable and thought provoking.”

Brian Cox, Royal Society Professor for Public Engagement in Science, says: 

“Good science writing ensures that you will never see your world in the same way again. It places science at the heart of our culture, illustrating why discoveries that may seem esoteric at first sight can change our lives in myriad ways. Whether it be stories of the development of new cutting edge technologies or the exploration of the deepest of mysteries, science books should form a core part of any curious reader’s literary diet.”

The shortlisted titles represent the judges’ pick of the most captivating and urgent science writing of the past twelve months, reflecting the place of science in our cultural landscape. They exemplify the extraordinary variety of topics and narrative style within the genre, and the role that great writing plays in bringing outstanding research and ideas to a wider audience.  

Two books address the biggest societal challenges facing society today, and demonstrate the vital importance of effective science communication. Farrar and Ahuja’s Spike offers a gripping personal narrative which takes us right to the heart of the Coronavirus response. Meanwhile, Stott’s Hot Air acts as a powerful and urgent call to action for full recognition of the climate crisis we are facing. 

A further two titles on the list tackle elements of the human condition. De Waal provides insight into current debates about sex and gender from the world of apes, filled with incredible anecdotes from his years of studying chimp and bonobo communities. With 35 years’ experience at the forefront or ageing medicine, Kenny gives us an accessible and illuminating insight into the science of ageing, and how to harness the process positively in everyday life.

The final two books give their own fresh and unique take on more traditional forms of science writing. The world of Victorian geological discovery is vividly animated by Davidson in The Greywacke, and Gee provides an entertaining and enlightening history of the world interspersed with the latest scientific developments. 

Over the past 34 years, the Prize has promoted the collective joy of science writing. It has celebrated game-changing titles which have illuminated the wonders of science, attaining a broader cultural resonance via compelling writing and a unique voice. Previous winners have captured readers’ imaginations through the remarkable world of fungi (Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake, 2021), offered fresh insight into everyday living (Explaining Humans by Dr Camilla Pang, 2020), and offered a powerful interrogation of gender bias (Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez, 2019). 

Alongside Professor Maria Fitzgerald, the 2022 judging panel comprises of writer, broadcaster and technology consultant Rory Cellan-Jones; novelist Mike Gayle; TV presenter and author Kate Humble; and experimental physicist and Royal Society University Research Fellow Dr Josh Mcfayden.

The winner of the 2022 Prize will be revealed at a ceremony at the Royal Society on 29 November. The winner will receive a cheque for £25,000, with £2,500 awarded to each of the five shortlisted authors.

Judges’ comments on shortlisted books

Kate Humble on Nick Davidson’s The Greywacke:

“Gloriously reminiscent of the traditional science books of days past, and full of intrigue and colour, The Greywacke vividly brings to life a remarkable Victorian geological discovery. Through the eyes of three unlikely and fascinating central characters, the reader is swept along in a book which is as captivating and theatrical as a novel; you could be a complete newcomer to the subject matter of geology and take a lot away from this. Ultimately a really exciting and digestible format for what may seem a niche topic.”

Maria Fitzgerald on Frans de Waal’s Different:

“Like it or not, we are all primates and much of our biology is shared with apes. What we do not share are our social norms and our struggle with defining gender. Different is a groundbreaking and engaging story of sex and gender in apes by world-renowned primatologist de Waal.  Immersing us in chimp and bonobo communities with vibrant detail of their individual characteristics, family structures, sexual practices and gender identity, he shows how many male and female behaviours are shared between humans and apes, but also what sets us apart, including sexual violence. Backed up by decades of field research, Different provides an uplifting and scientific insight into current debates about gender and society.”

Maria Fitzgerald on Jeremy Farrar and Anjana Ahuja’s Spike: 

“On New Year’s Eve 2019, while most of us were lifting a glass to see the new year in, Jeremy Farrar, world expert in global infectious diseases, received a personal call about a cluster of cases of a new pneumonia in Wuhan in China. Farrar’s account of what followed as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded is told in Spike, a rollercoaster story of intrigue, politics and human error that reads like a thriller. Farrar, who was present at the heart of government decision-making on Covid-19 and Ahuja, a talented science writer, lead us on an exciting and pacy journey, chilling in its honesty but intensely readable.” 

Josh McFayden on Henry Gee’s A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth:

“This book immediately grabs you with its absorbing style and approachable structure; and yet far from dumbing them down, Gee lays out some of the most complex phases of Earth’s life story in a new and unique way. The latest developments in scientific discovery are methodically weaved into twelve succinct chapters, making for an enjoyable, informative and expansive read that had me completely hooked!”

Mike Gayle on Professor Rose Anne Kenny’s Age Proof:

“From the very first page, Kenny draws you in with her inspiring look at a universally appealing subject matter: the science of ageing. With her well-paced and clear writing style, she combines an evidence-based account of the ageing process with empowering, practical tips to apply in everyday life, equipping the reader with a more positive and informed understanding of something which, after all, affects every single one of us.”

Rory Cellan-Jones on Peter Stott’s Hot Air:

“A compelling and incisive account of the long battle against climate change denial, made all the more urgent in the context of continuing attacks on climate science and well-funded global resistance to taking the action required to tackle the dangers of climate change. Stott offers a fascinating insider look into the meticulous workings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as they tackle one of the biggest challenges facing humanity today. A truly gripping and alarming read - quite simply, I couldn’t put it down.”

About the shortlisted authors

Nick Davidson is a documentary filmmaker and amateur geologist. He studied at Sussex University and now lives in London.

Frans de Waal is the author of the New York Times bestseller Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (Granta, 2016) and Mama’s Last Hug (Granta 2018) – winner of the PEN award for non-fiction – among many other books. Named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People, he is the emeritus C. H. Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory University and emeritus Distinguished Professor at the University of Utrecht. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Jeremy Farrar is Director of the Wellcome Trust and, as an expert on infectious disease, is a member of the UK government's SAGE committee on Covid-19. He was one of the first people in the world to know about and alert the global community to Covid-19. He will be directing his royalties from SPIKE to charity.

Anjana Ahuja is the Financial Times science columnist and a freelance writer who has covered the coronavirus outbreak extensively since its beginnings in January 2020. She holds a PhD from Imperial College London.

Dr Henry Gee was born in 1962. He was educated at the universities of Leeds and Cambridge. For more than three decades he has been a writer and editor at the international science journal Nature. His previous books include The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution; Across The Bridge: Understanding the Origin of the Vertebrates; Deep Time: Cladistics, the Revolution in Evolution; Jacob’s Ladder: The History of the Human Genome; The Science of Middle-earth, and (with Luis V. Rey) A Field Guide to Dinosaurs. He lives in Cromer, Norfolk, with his family and numerous pets.

Professor Rose Anne Kenny is an award-winning physician and researcher who has been Head of the academic department of Medical Gerontology at Trinity College Dublin since 2006.  She is the founding Principal Investigator of The Irish LongituDinal study on Ageing (TILDA). She has published over 600 scientific publications to date and was admitted as a Member of the Royal Irish Academy (M.R.I.A) in 2014. She recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award for her research on ageing 2019. She won the Trinity Innovation Award in 2017 and was elected President of the Irish Geriatrics Society in 2020.

Professor Peter Stott is a Science Fellow in Climate Attribution at the Met Office's Hadley Centre and Professor in Detection and Attribution at the University of Exeter. He has played a leading role in the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and has been published in Nature and Science among many other journals.