Top science book prize won by woman for first time

The most prestigious science book prize in Britain has been won by a solo female writer for the first time in its 28-year history.

Gaia Vince, a journalist and broadcaster based in London, was named the winner of the 2015 Royal Society Winton prize for Science Books at a ceremony in London on Thursday evening.

The award puts her name at the top of a long list of previous winners that includes some of the greats of science writing, such as Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould, Jared Diamond, James Gleick and Bill Bryson.

Vince quit her job as an editor at the journal, Nature, to spend more than two years travelling the world to research her book, Adventures in the Anthropocene: a Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made. The word Anthropocene was coined in the 1980s to describe what some regard as a new epoch in Earth’s geological history: one in which humans replace nature as the most influential force on the planet.

The writing project was not an overly comfortable one. Vince sought out people and places most disrupted by humanity’s plundering of Earth’s resources. It is no surprise that the greatest impact is felt by the poorest. She visited slums in Colombia, and clambered down a silver mine in Bolivia. In the Caribbean, she found a man who had built an new island from rubbish and brightened it up with papaya and coconuts. On it sat two timber houses. Before her globetrotting was done, she had fallen ill with malaria.

Announcing the winner, Ian Stewart, the chair of the judges, praised Vince for exploring an underreported area of science and for writing a truly original story, and said that the judges’ decision was unanimous. “We were all humbled by Vince’s commitment to this book,” he said. “She has captured the issue of the day in a way that is ultimately empowering without ever being complacent. We are very proud to recognise this ambitious and essential work.”

Vince becomes the first woman as sole author to win the Royal Society book prize, worth £25 000 this year. In 1997, the award was given to Alan Walker and Pat Shipman, who co-wrote The Wisdom of Bones.

Speaking on the Guardian’s science podcast last year, Vince described how the constant stream of new stories passing through her hands at Nature prompted her to set out on the book project.

“I was sitting at my desk and aware of all these news stories coming in,” she said. “It’s already affecting people, and it’s affecting people largely in the tropics and in the poor world. These people were the ones I wanted to talk to, and the only way I could hear their stories, as they were happening in this extraordinary time, was if I went out there and found them.”

The book is illustrated with photographs taken by Vince’s partner, Nick Pattinson, who captured remarkable shots, from an Indian civil engineer’s manmade glaciers, to Peruvians painting parts of the Andes white to cool it down, and that island made of garbage. The story is as much about these ingenious, and sometimes desperate, bids to save an environment that is steadily being destroyed.

Vince beat five rivals on a strong shortlist that included The Man Who Couldn’t Stop by David Adam, Alex Through the Looking Glass, by Alex Bellos, Life’s Greatest Secret by Matthew Cobb, Smashing Physics by Jon Butterworth, and Life on the Edge, by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden.

Hosting the ceremony, Brian Cox, the physicist and TV presenter, said: “Britain is facing an urgent scientific illiteracy problem, but I believe that popular science books can begin to bridge this gap. I urge everyone in the country to pick up at least one of these six breathtakingly entertaining and mind-expanding books and gain a fresh appreciation for the stories that science can tell.”

Claire Armitstead, the Guardian’s head of books, and one of the prize judges, said: “All of the books on the shortlist passed our test of being both authoritative and accessible, but Gaia’s felt as if it was covering new ground.

“It is a wonderful piece of reportage, which transports you to some of the most challenging environments in the world and introduces you to the people who are finding new ways of making them habitable. We all now know about the environmental problems mankind has created in what has now become known as the Anthropocene, but Gaia’s humbling and uplifting book demonstrates how the scientific ingenuity of our species is also helping us to solve these problems.” – By Ian Sample