Tuesday, 15 May, 2001, 15:52 GMT 16:52 UK
Science books vie for big prize
The winners will be announced on 12 June
By BBC science and technology correspondent Christine McGourty
Jellyfish, depression, quarks, genes, artificial life and a 19th Century Russian chemist are the ingredients of this year's shortlist for the £10,000 Aventis prize for science books, often dubbed science's Booker Prize.
On an impressively wide-ranging list, oceanography and chemistry's Periodic Table appear alongside the staples of popular science such as evolution and particle physics.
It's got to get the science over for a general reader without sacrificing accuracy
Sir David Weatherall, chairman of judges
One of the judges, author Maggie Gee, a former Booker Prize judge, said of the shortlist: "There are more ideas in these books than I find in contemporary fiction."
She added that selecting the shortlist had proved "less hard fought" than her stint as a Booker Prize judge in 1989, when a row broke out over the exclusion of Martin Amis' London Fields on the grounds of supposed misogyny.
'Flair and imagination'
There was more consensus this time, she said, though she was sad to see Susan Greenfield's The Private Life of the Brain and Johnjoe McFadden's Quantum Evolution fail to reach the final six.
Sir David Weatherall of Oxford University, UK, chairman of the judges, said the winner - to be announced at a gala dinner at London's Science Museum on 12 June - would have to be "almost like a good novel - you want to keep turning the page. It's got to get the science over for a general reader without sacrificing accuracy".
The books tackle some of life's big questions
The quality of the books submitted showed the field of popular science writing to be "in great shape", he added. But the winner would be the book with that little bit extra in the way of "flair and imagination".
Maggie Gee added: "I think it's going to be very difficult. Over the last 10 years, science writing has become better and better in terms of popularity and accessibility. We've been spoilt for choice."
These are the books in the running:
Creation: Life and How to Make it, by Steve Grand (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £18.99)
In Brief: Kicks off with a curious depiction of his wife's sleeping body and goes on to tackle science's big questions, like What is life?, while taking the reader on a cheerful whistle-stop tour of artificial intelligence and a highly personal view of the future for intelligent machines.
Author: Author of the computer game Creatures, managing director of Cyberlife Research and self-styled "Cybergod".
Malignant Sadness: The Anatomy of Depression, by Lewis Wolpert (Faber, £7.99)
In Brief: Clear and comprehensive guide to the science of severe depression, its causes and current treatments, with some personal touches from Wolpert's own experience of the disease. Concise and candid - you won't want to put it down.
Author: Distinguished biology professor at University College, London.
Mapping the Deep: The Extraordinary Story of Ocean Science, by Robert Kunzig (Sort of Books, £8.99)
In Brief: A rarely told story of jellyfish, siphonophores, salps and other characters from the world of water. A potted history of ocean exploration topped up with accounts from the cutting edge of marine science. Good stuff, only let down by a thin supply of colour illustrations and some poor-quality black-and-white ones.
Author: Science journalist at Discover magazine.
Mendel's Demon: Gene Justice and the Complexity of Life, by Mark Ridley (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20)
In Brief: Where else could you get a comparison of the merits of cloning, Earthly sex and Angelic sex? Ridley provides a colourful guide to why, biologically speaking, life is so complex. It is both thought provoking and hilarious, so that you can forgive the author his rare lapses into dry academic-speak.
Author: Influential evolutionary scientist at Oxford University.
Mendeleyev's Dream: The Quest for the Elements, by Paul Strathern (Penguin, £12.99)
In Brief: The Periodic Table could have been a lot more interesting at school with Strathern to explain its colourful history. He brings chemistry to life through some of its key characters through the ages from Paracelsus to Dmitri Mendeleyev and the unfortunate beheaded Antoine Lavoisier.
Author: Lecturer in philosophy and science at Kingston University.
Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth Century Physics by By George Johnson (Jonathan Cape, £18.99)
In Brief: The first biography of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, a child prodigy who became a pioneer in particle physics, discovering, among other things, the quark, but making plenty of enemies on the way. A great story, well told, that makes quantum physics almost comprehensible.
Author: Reports on science for the New York Times.
The shortlist for children's books is as follows:
DK Guide to Dinosaurs, by David Lambert (Dorling Kindersley, £12.99).
Fabulous illustrations and crystal clear explanations of how the dinosaurs lived and died.
DK Guide to Weather, by Michael Allaby (Dorling Kindersley, £12.99).
Dorling Kindersley know how to appeal to children
Fascinating facts on natural phenomena from mist and fog to twisters and tornadoes.
Eyewitness Guides: Epidemics, by Brian Ward (Dorling Kindersley, £9.99).
Microbes, infections, plagues, coughs, colds and germ warfare - all explained in easy-to-digest chunks with some gruesome illustrations.
Horrible Science Series: Suffering Scientists, by Nick Arnold (Scholastic, £7.99).
Humorous potted history of sciences successes and failures. Guaranteed to have the children chuckling as they learn.
The At Home with Science Series, by Janice Lobb & Peter Utton (Kingfisher £6.99 per title).
Why does a jelly wobble? Why can't I fly like a bird? Why must I brush my teeth? These and other awkward questions explained with the help of simple experiments for home and garden.
The Complete Book of the Brain, by John Farndon (Hodder Wayland, £11.99).
A colourful introduction to the brain, including how we hear, see, smell, remember and dream.
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