By Christine McGourty
BBC science correspondent
The six science books competing for this year's Aventis Prize all share a "compelling standard of writing", says Professor Lord Robert Winston.
From Black Arrow to Beagle 2, a history of British boffins at their best
The fertility specialist leads a panel of five judges who will decide in June which is the best popular science publication of the last year.
The titles put on Monday's shortlist cover subjects ranging from the origins of the Universe to genetic discovery.
The Aventis Prize is worth £10,000 to the winner and guarantees a sales rush.
The prize, which includes a junior category, is managed by the UK's science academy, the Royal Society.
This year, it has drawn a record number of nominations - up almost 20% on 2003.
Previous Aventis winners have included Stephen J Gould, Roger Penrose, and Stephen Hawking.
The author Terry Pratchett, who sits on this year's judging panel, told BBC News Online that the quality of the books was "noticeably better" than when he was first involved in judging the competition almost a decade ago.
For Pratchett, the most important quality was "sheer readability".
He said: "It seems important to me that page one makes you want to turn to page two."
He added that many of the books "opened his mind", and he was particularly struck by a passage in the book Mutants, by Armand Marie Leroi: "The thing that really fascinated me was about the early days in the development of the embryo when it's not much more than a handful of cells. The whole thing seemed to unfold in my mind like a movie."
How a humble nematode worm opened up genomics
Fellow judge Daniel Glaser, a neuroscientist at University College London, said "readability and relevance" would be the key factors in selecting the final winner.
"We want a book that non-scientists can enjoy and that addresses questions that people ask in their everyday lives that perhaps they can't easily find an answer to," he said.
He described the shortlist as "fabulous" and said the quality and range of the books was hugely impressive.
It was "a pleasant surprise", he added, that travel writer Bill Bryson turned his hand to science so well and he was particularly pleased to see engineers and British science getting some attention in Francis Spufford's book, Backroom Boys.
The winner of the Aventis Prize will be revealed at a gala dinner at the Royal Society on 14 June.
The full shortlist for the
2004 General Prize:
- In The Beginning Was The Worm, by Andrew Brown (Simon & Schuster) - In brief: The story of the nematode worm and the scientists who have devoted their lives to unravelling its secrets. But it will appeal to far more than just worm-lovers for its insights into the work of brilliant scientists such as Sydney Brenner, Bob Horvitz and Sir John Sulston, who shared a 2002 Nobel Prize for their work on this microscope creature, the first organism to have its entire genetic make-up sequenced.
About the author: Freelance journalist and author of two previous books, one on the Metropolitan Police and another on the feuds amongst evolutionary theorists.
- A Short History Of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday/Transworld) - In brief: One man's quest to understand the world around us, from the Big Bang to plate tectonics. The author explores such matters as the size of the Earth and the origins of life, in prose that never fails to be elegant and comprehensible. Fascinating characters and tales from the history of science in a book that's entertaining and brilliantly readable.
About the author: Best-selling travel writer and author of books such as Notes From A Small Island and The Lost Continent.
- Magic Universe, by Nigel Calder (Oxford University Press) -
In brief: At 705 pages long, this is a giant of a book that covers a vast range of scientific fields in almost encyclopaedic fashion. Subjects are covered in alphabetic order - from alcohol to volcanic explosions - but this is no dry and dusty work of reference. There are dozens of essays, covering everything from cloning and human origins to gravitational waves and the electroweak force. A book to dip into and savour.
About the author: A distinguished science writer, broadcaster and former editor of New Scientist.
- Mutants, by Armand Marie Leroi (Penguin: Viking USA) - In brief: A fascinating exploration of the human body, taking in the story of a French convent girl who found herself changing sex upon puberty; children born with a single eye in the middle of their foreheads and the tale of a hairy family kept at the Burmese royal court for four generations. Beautifully written, this is a mixture of the history of science and medicine and up-to-date explanations of how our genes make us what we are.
About the author: Reader in Evolutionary Developmental Biology at Imperial College London.
- Nature Via Nurture, by Matt Ridley (Fourth Estate) - In brief: The perfect antidote to all the hype in recent years about the human genome. The author explores the battles fought over whether nature or nurture makes us what we are, and argues that human behaviour can only be explained by both. A very readable guide to some of the very latest scientific research in genetics.
About the author: Science journalist and award-winning author.
- Backroom Boys, by Francis Spufford (Faber & Faber) - In brief: A history of the achievements of arguably some of the more neglected members of British society: engineers. The book looks at some fascinating episodes from the history of technology in the last century, from Britain's early efforts in space to the engineers working on the first mobile phone.
About the author: Author of several acclaimed non-fiction titles and editor of literary anthologies.
The shortlisted books for the
2004 Junior Prize:
Dorling Kindersley has dominated the junior prize in recent years
- The Beginning: Voyages Through Time, by Peter Ackroyd (Dorling Kindersley) - In brief: Glossy and colourful guide to the history of life on Earth from the Big Bang to the emergence of the Neanderthals. It is the first children's book from an author usually associated with more literary matters.
- Really Rotten Experiments, by Nick Arnold and Tony De Saulles (Scholastic Children's Books) - In brief: A hilarious introduction to some of the basic principles of science through the antics and experiments carried out at a fictional "Rotten Road School". Lots of disgustingly, slimy fun to appeal to children of all ages.
- Riotous Robots, by Mike Goldsmith (Scholastic Children's Books) - In brief: From Frankenstein to nanobots, this is a comprehensive and entertaining guide to the history and future of robots. It explains the technical detail of how robots work in an accessible way.
- Start Science: Forces And Motion, by Sally Hewitt (Chrysalis Children's Books) - In brief: For younger children, this is an exploration of the forces at work in the natural world, complete with very simple experiments to do at home to learn about such things as floating, magnetism and friction.
- Tell Me: Who Lives in Space?, by Clare Oliver (Chrysalis Children's Books) - In brief: Cartoons and quizzes feature in this beginner's guide to space. It explores the Universe through answers to tricky questions such as "Do galaxies bump into each other?" Clear and concise explanations, supplemented by internet links.
- Survivors Science: In The Rainforest, by Peter Riley (Hodder Wayland) - In brief: A fact-packed guide to life in the rainforest. It explains everything from what to wear and how to survive in the rainforest, to how flying squirrels leap from tree to tree. It also has experiments to do at home.