Hurrah for Nick Lane, whose Life Ascending won the Royal Society Science Book Prize last night. If anyone there was in doubt that Nick’s book deserved the award, it became crystal clear during the short readings by each author before the announcement (a first for this prize) that his tight, elegant and vivid prose put him ahead of the others. Shame on me for not mentioning Nick’s book in my round-up of the year's science books in the Sunday Times last year.
But the ceremony seemed to me curiously muted, which perhaps reflects the fact that it may be the last: the Royal Society has said it cannot continue funding the prize without a sponsor, and has been unable to find one. This is tragic and baffling. The financial cost can’t be onerous: the glitzy award ceremony was ditched some years back, and there can’t be many other costs except for the modest prize money itself. Besides, as Georgina Ferry said to me recently apropos the also (more or less) defunct Association of British Science Writers Awards, it’s not about the money anyway: the winners would be just as pleased (well, almost) with the recognition alone. As well as the big literary prizes, just about every genre of fiction and non-fiction has its awards – it would be sad indeed if science writers do not, not least because this sends out the message that no one cares much about what they do. Yes, I know we writers are insecure, and that prizes are in any case mostly capricious and invidious beauty contests – but now that the science book prize looks set to vanish, it is more clear to me than ever that what I cared about is not the thought of winning it but the mere knowledge that it is there. And as I tried to say clumsily terms to the BBC, this award was a way of getting a conversation going about how and why science is communicated, and about the roles of science in society. Are the big pharma or IT companies not so keen, even in these straitened times, to see that conversation happen that they can’t find a bit of spare cash?