England: ‘A (Very) Short History’ Wins the £25,000 Royal Society Science Book Prize

In News by Porter Anderson

The paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Henry Gee wins the 2022 Royal Society Science Book Prize sponsored by Insight Investment.

Henry Gee, a writer and editor with the journal ‘Nature,’ is the winner of the 2022 Royal Society Science Book Prize. Image: The Royal Society

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘The Earth Abides’
At the Royal Society in London this evening (November 29), Nature writer and senior editor Henry Gee has been awarded the £25,000 ( US$29,927) Royal Society Science Book Prize for his A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Chapters (Pan Macmillan, 2021).

The prize, sponsored by Insight Investment, also pays £2,500 to each of its shortlistees (US$2,991). You can find our coverage of that shortlist here.

Gee was handed a trophy tonight by Sir Adrian Smith, president of the Royal Society, with society fellow, physicist, and broadcaster Jim Al-Khalili acting as host for the evening at Carlton House Terrace.

Maria Fitzgerald

The jury chair, neuroscientist Maria Fitzgerald—the daughter of Booker Prize winning novelist Penelope Fitzgerald—in offering the panel’s rationale, said, “This is history like you have never read before.

“Henry Gee takes us on a whirlwind journey through 4.6  billion years through the birth of the planet Earth, the emergence of life, and the evolution of man, a  species that is not only aware of itself but also of what will happen next.

“As Gee races through millennia, momentous physical and biological changes are described with immense skill and dynamism combined  with almost poetic imagery. The last chapter, ‘The Past of the Future,’ reminds us of our relative  insignificance and that each species facing extinction does so in its own way. But ‘do not despair,’ he  urges us: ‘The Earth abides, and life is living yet.'”

Joining Fitzgerald on the jury were broadcaster and technology consultant Rory Cellan-Jones; novelist Mike Gayle; television presenter and author Kate Humble; and experimental physicist and Royal Society university research fellow Josh Mcfayden.

The presenting physicist Al-Khalil, said, “With a unique and fresh approach that will appeal to a wide readership, Gee expertly demonstrates just how fascinating and timely a history of life on Earth can be. From the big bang to the future demise of the planet, via numerous flukes of evolution and sudden mass extinctions along the way, this book does what all good science writing should do: it makes us see the world around us in a totally different way,  and instills a renewed wonder for life itself. …

“This year’s winner—and indeed the  shortlist as a whole—show that popular science writing continues to excite, challenge, and inform us in equal measure, while the standard of talent on display is as high as ever.”

Gee’s previous  books include The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution and Across the Bridge: Understanding the Origin of the Vertebrates.

In a perspective-sharpening line quoted from the book’s epilogue by the awards program, Gee writes that humanity’s legacy “will leave no more than a layer, millimeters thick, in some future sedimentary rock.”

Royal Society Science Book Prize 2022 Shortlist
  • The Greywacke: How a Priest, a Soldier and a School Teacher Uncovered 300 Million Years of  History by Nick Davidson (Profile Books)
  • Different: What Apes Can Teach Us About Gender by Frans de Waal (Granta)
  • Spike: The Virus vs. The People – the Inside Story by Jeremy Farrar with Anjana Ahuja (Profile  Books)
  • A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth: 4.6 Billion Years in 12 Pithy Chapters by Dr Henry Gee  (Pan Macmillan)
  • Age Proof: The New Science of Living a Longer and Healthier Life by Professor Rose Anne  Kenny (Bonnier Books)
  • Hot Air: The Inside Story of the Battle Against Climate Change Denial by Professor Peter Stott (Atlantic Books)

Past Winners of the Royal Society Science Book Prize
  • 2021: Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake
  • 2020: Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us about Life, Love and Relationships by Camilla Pang
  • 2019: Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez
  • 2018: Inventing Ourselves by Sarah-Jayne Blakemore
  • 2017: Testosterone Rex by Cordelia Fine
  • 2016: The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf
  • 2015: Adventures in the Anthropocene by Gaia Vince
  • 2014: Stuff by Mark Miodownik
  • 2013: The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll
  • 2012: The Information by James Gleick
  • 2011: The Wavewatcher’s Companion by Gavin Pretor-Pinney
  • 2010: Life Ascending by Nick Lane
  • 2009: The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes
  • 2008: Six Degrees by Mark Lynas
  • 2007: Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
  • 2006: Electric Universe by David Bodanis
  • 2005: Critical Mass by Philip Ball
  • 2004: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
  • 2003: Right Hand, Left Hand by Chris McManus
  • 2002: The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking
  • 2001: Mapping the Deep by Robert Kunzig
  • 2000: The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene
  • 1999: The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman
  • 1998: Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • 1997: The Wisdom of Bones by Alan Walker and Pat Shipman
  • 1996: Plague’s Progress by Arno Karlen
  • 1995: The Consumer’s Good Chemical Guide by John Emsley
  • 1994: The Language of the Genes by Steve Jones
  • 1993: The Making of Memory by Steven Rose
  • 1992: The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond
  • 1991: Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould
  • 1990: The Emperor’s New Mind by Roger Penrose
  • 1989: Bones of Contention by Roger Lewin
  • 1988: Living with Risk by the British Medical Association Board of Science

This is Publishing Perspectives’ 201st awards-related report in the 214 publication days since our 2022 operations began on January 3.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Sheikh Zayed Book Award is here, more on Arabic literature is here, and more on translation is here. More from us on publishing and book awards in the international industry is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.