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Tuesday, 25 June, 2002, 09:18 GMT 10:18 UK
Science writers vie for top prize
Books, Aventis
A diverse collection as usual

The 10,000 Aventis Prize for Science Books, often dubbed "science's Booker Prize", will be announced at a gala dinner on Tuesday.

Schizophrenia, primates, cosmology and dust are among the subjects covered in the shortlisted books.

The books on our shortlist are more accessible to the general reader than many of the books you'd find on a shortlist for the Booker Prize

Dr Raj Persaud, chair of judges
The judges say the list could hardly be more diverse: one scientist's engrossing personal tale of his research with a troop of Kenyan baboons rubs shoulders with Stephen Hawking's latest foray into cosmology for the layman.

Hawking is the favourite with the bookies to take the top prize.

Chairman of the judges Dr Raj Persaud, a psychiatrist and consultant at the Maudsley Hospital, said the shortlist had everything: passion and scholarship, with a dash of controversy and some history thrown in for good measure. Above everything, the books chosen were a good read, he said.

"People expect science to be inaccessible, technically difficult and boring," he told BBC News Online. "But the books on our shortlist are more accessible to the general reader than many of the books you'd find on a shortlist for the Booker Prize.

"And popular science is a difficult thing to do well. You've got to get the facts right in what can be a fast-moving area."

One of the judges, Janna Levin, an author and scientist from Cambridge University, said selecting the shortlist had not been easy.

"There were certainly no unanimous decisions and everyone has their regrets," she said. "It was a very varied judging panel and there were very disparate opinions on what makes a good book."

At a lively debate on science and literature at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, where the shortlist was announced, author Matt Ridley provided his tip as to the likely winner.

He said that the secret to successful science writing was "to change your name to Stephen", listing the distinguished authors Steve Jones, Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Wolfram, Stephen Budiansky and others.

The authors of the shortlisted books each receive 1,000 irrespective of whether they take the big prize, which will be presented at the Science Museum in London.

These are the books in the running:

The Universe in a Nutshell, by Stephen Hawking (Bantam press, 20)

In Brief: A glossy and well-illustrated beginner's guide to the usual stuff of cosmology: black holes, quantum theory, inflation, time travel, string theory and the rest. Not a scintillating read, but very informative. The difficult concepts are spelt out very clearly and the book is divided into nice, easily digestible bite-sized chunks.

About the Author: Physicist at Cambridge University.

The Secret Life of Dust, by Hannah Holmes (John Wiley & Sons, 16.99)

In Brief: Anyone who's allergic to dust may find it to be more interesting than they had thought. Coal dust, volcanic dust, space dust, dust from the Gobi Desert. Indeed, everything you ever wanted to know about dust is here, but you have to be keen on dust to enjoy it.

About the Author: A science writer based in America.

The Madness of Adam and Eve, by David Horrobin (Bantam Press, 18.99)

In Brief: An unusual take on schizophrenia. Horrobin argues that the biochemical changes that produce the disease are, in part, what makes us human and calls for a new holistic approach to treating schizophrenia based on diet. A very readable guide to evolutionary theory and psychiatric illness for anyone who wants to know more about this devastating disease.

About the Author: Medical researcher formerly at Oxford University and St Mary's Hospital in London.

A Primate's Memoir, by Robert M Sapolsky (Jonathan Cape, 7.99)

In Brief: Science is rarely as gripping as it is in this hilarious and moving account of Sapolsky's research among the baboons of East Africa. It's fast-moving, well-written and a far better read than most books of travel or fiction. Difficult to put down.

About the Author: Professor at Stanford University and researcher with the Institute of Primate Research, Kenya.

Rivals, by Michael White (Vintage, 7.99)

In Brief: A readable guide to some of the great arguments in the history of science. Provides some insights into scientists at work by examining debates between Newton and Leibniz, Darwin and Owen, and others. Some technology is added in for good measure, including the rivalry between Bill Gates and Larry Ellison.

About the Author: Author of a range of popular science books.

Aeons, by Martin Gorst (4th Estate, 7.99)

In Brief: Arguments between science and religion through the ages are examined in this tale of the search for the true age of the Earth. From Bishop Ussher in the 17th Century to the latest findings of the Hubble Space Telescope, this is a nicely written story about an important chapter in the history of science.

About the author: Writer and director of science documentaries.

The shortlist for the best science book for children under 14, also worth 10,000:

Albert Einstein and his Inflatable Universe, by Dr Mike Goldsmith (Scholastic 3.99)

In Brief: Brilliantly accessible and funny guide to Einstein's discoveries and the great man as a human being.

Life Finds Its Feet, by Jacquie Bailey (A & C Black, 4.99)

In Brief: Colourful cartoon-style story of how life on Earth began, complete with creepy-crawlies and plenty of gooey stuff that kids will love.

Materials, by Alastair Smith, Phillip Clarke and Corinne Henderson (Usborne, 6.99)

In Brief: A very useful and well-illustrated guide to liquids, solids and all aspects of chemistry, with extensive internet links.

The Kingfisher Illustrated Dinosaur Encyclopaedia, by David Burnie (18.99)

In Brief: Everything you ever wanted to know about dinosaurs.

DK Guide to the Human Body, by Richard Walker (12.99)

In Brief: As you'd expect from DK, a feast of glorious colour images and graphics explaining how our bodies work.

Bugs, by Chris Maynard (DK, 4.99)

In Brief: Fantastic insect pictures and facts, with lots of gory close-ups for fans of creepy-crawlies.

See also:

12 Jun 01 | Science/Nature
23 May 00 | Science/Nature
21 May 02 | Science/Nature
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