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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 May, 2003, 15:00 GMT 16:00 UK
Science for the masses
By Christine McGourty
BBC science correspondent

The shortlist for the prestigious Aventis Prize for Science Books has been announced.

The Blank Slate, Allen Lane
The nature versus nurture debate
The winner will be revealed at a gala dinner at London's Science Museum on 25 June.

The author Margaret Drabble, who is chairing the judging panel, told BBC News Online that they were looking for books that were "accessible, exciting and made us think".

The final selection ranged from those that were "easy to read" to others that were "really difficult".

Both Drabble and her fellow judge Matthew Parris, the journalist and author, said they were hugely impressed by Reckoning With Risk, by Gerd Gigerenzer, who explains some common misunderstandings about statistics.

"I decided not to have a scan for prostate cancer after reading that book," said Parris. "I realised it would be a complete waste of time."

Tough battles

Drabble said that perhaps the most difficult book was Robert Kirshner's The Extravagant Universe, on a group of scientists studying exploding stars - supernovae.

But she said the author described brilliantly the human side of science: "He characterised his team and their rivals very well and also captured both the tedium and the excitement of their work."

Parris said he was hugely impressed with the variety and the quality of science books on offer today: "They're amazingly good, amazingly diverse and amazingly plentiful.

"I had absolutely no idea how much science writing for the general public was being published all the time. There's a huge amount of really good stuff."

Selecting the winner, he added, would not be easy. "I expect really vigorous discussion. In the six we have, there's no particular one that's an obvious winner, so I think we'll have to talk and argue a lot."

Changed thinking

There were regrets that some books had had to be left off the shortlist. For Drabble, it was John Barrow's The Constants Of Nature: From alpha to omega.

Where Is Everybody? Copernicus Books
Calling ET: Where are you?
And both Drabble and Parris regretted that Paul Martin's book on sleep, Counting Sheep, had also been left out.

Parris commented: "This wonderful book has completely changed my sleep patterns. I've now decided always to have eight hours of sleep a night and it's made a huge difference."

Drabble said we could expect to see more science in her own works in future: "Reading these books really does change the framework of your thinking."

These are the books in the running for the 2003 general prize:

Small World, by Mark Buchanan (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 18.99)

In brief: Starting with the philosopher Karl Popper and finishing on Malaysian fireflies, this book covers research often neglected by popular science publications, such as computer networks and cellular biochemistry. Buchanan reveals how networks have been uncovered in all areas of life. With extraordinary examples covering everything from the KGB to the spread of syphilis, he outlines how discoveries in complexity science could lead to a new kind of physics.

About the author: Science writer based in France.

Reckoning With Risk: Learning to live with uncertainty, by Gerd Gigerenzer (Allen Lane, 8.99 paperback)

In brief: Everyone should read this book. Not a catchy headline, but it's surprisingly compulsive, untangling concepts such as frequency and probability, using real examples from DNA fingerprinting to HIV testing and mammograms.

About the author: Director of the Centre for Adaptive Behaviour and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

The Extravagant Universe: Exploding stars, dark energy and the accelerating cosmos, by Robert P Kirshner (Princeton University Press, 19.95)

In brief: A supernova expert describes how an American team provided new insights into the expansion of the Universe and the mysterious dark energy that pervades the cosmos. It provides lots of colour from the frontline of astronomy. It's a good read and a clear guide to some of the key debates in cosmology over the last century.

About the author: Astronomer and Harvard University professor.

Right Hand, Left Hand: The origins of asymmetry in brains, bodies, atoms and cultures, by Chris McManus (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 20)

In brief: A fabulous read for any left-handers and - come to think of it - for all right-handers, too. It poses questions most of us never even think of, such as "Why are most people right-handed?" and "Why is the heart on the left-hand side of the body?" It draws on art, philosophy, medicine and physics to provide illuminating answers.

About the author: Professor of psychology and medical education at University College London.

Horrible Science, Scholastic
Nick Arnold has become a regular in the shortlist
The Blank Slate: The modern denial of human nature, by Steven Pinker (Allen Lane, 7.99 paperback)

In brief: Explains why many intellectuals today deny the existence of human nature and argue instead that each of us is a tabula rasa on which the environment writes. With his trademark stylish writing, wit and flair, Pinker is a top-notch guide to the latest thinking on that age-old debate over nature versus nurture. It is hugely enjoyable and thought-provoking.

About the author: Harvard professor and best-selling author.

Where Is Everybody? Fifty solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the problem of extraterrestrial life, by Stephen Webb (Copernicus Books, 17.50)

In brief: Webb writes with verve and humour about the possible answers to the question once posed by the brilliant physicist Enrico Fermi: "If alien life exists, where IS everybody?" It's a down-to-earth guide to some of the latest thinking on staples of science fiction such as extraterrestrial life and interstellar travel.

About the author: Physicist and author.

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

Horrible Science: The terrible truth about time, by Nick Arnold (Scholastic 3.99)

In brief: An entertaining mixture of humour, quizzes and cartoons - a great guide to the mysteries of time for children and grown-ups alike.

The Dorling Kindersley Guide to the Oceans, by Dr Frances Dipper (Dorling Kindersley 9.99)

In brief: Glossy, colourful and detailed introduction to a variety of watery worlds, from rocky shores to the deep sea.

Get in Gear, by Sholly Fisch (Innovative Kids, 14.99)

In brief: Who would have thought that gears could be fun, but this brilliant book - with a built-in working motor - allows you to build your own wacky contraptions using real working gears.

Leap through time: Dinosaur, by Nicholas Harris (Orpheus Books, 5.99)

In brief: A change from the standard dinosaur encyclopaedias, this follows the life of one dinosaur from hatchling to fossil.

Why Can't I...?, by Sally Hewitt (Chrysalis Children's Books, 10.99 each)

In brief: A colourful and appealing series of books providing clear and simple explanations to those tricky questions kids ask, such as "Why can I hear the sea in a shell?" and "Why can't I switch off my ears?"

The Way Science Works, by Robin Kerrod and Dr Sharon Ann Holgate (Dorling Kindersley, 14.99)

In brief: Billed as a companion to the science curriculum, this book covers all the main topics of school chemistry and physics with plenty of illustrations and simple experiments to try at home.

Hawking takes top book prize
25 Jun 02  |  Science/Nature
The jellyfish triumph
12 Jun 01  |  Science/Nature
'Theory of everything' scoops top prize
23 May 00  |  Science/Nature

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