By Jonathan Amos
BBC News Online science staff
The American travel writer Bill Bryson has won the prestigious 2004 Aventis Prize for popular science books.
It was Bryson's first foray into popular science writing
His publication, called A Short History Of Nearly Everything, is an exploration of science for someone who found school lessons "boring and mystifying".
Mr Bryson was presented with a cheque for £10,000 during a gala dinner at the Royal Society in London on Monday.
The judging panel said the writer had communicated science "in an intelligent and highly accessible way".
Bill Bryson told BBC News Online that his book had in some ways been just another travelogue.
"What I learned was not all the big stuff like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein - it was that science is about tens of thousands of people that do tiny, tiny things that all accrete into a larger body of knowledge," he explained.
"What I tried to do in the book was celebrate some of these people."
Less is better
A Short History Of Nearly Everything goes to the core of science - to the origins of the Universe; the historical discovery of the size and age of the Earth; relativity and quantum theory; the present and future threats to life and the planet; and the origins and history of life and the evolution of man.
The fertility specialist and chairman of the Aventis judging panel, Lord Robert Winston, was full of praise for Mr Bryson's vision.
"It was a very ambitious book," he said. "I must tell you that it was a very difficult shortlist because all six books were exceptionally good.
"But we went for Bill Bryson in the end because we felt his was the book that would give science the widest exposure."
Mark Henderson, the science correspondent of The Times newspaper, commented: "It is the most thrilling introduction to the history of science and to the way that science works that I've certainly come across.
"None of it is necessarily groundbreaking in any way - this is information that is already out there. It's more about what Bryson does with the information.
"Sometimes by leaving out some of the detail he manages to convey the whole rather better than other more technical or more complex books."
Bill Bryson was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in the US in 1951 but now bases himself in the UK.
He is known for his quirky, engaging style and is the bestselling author of publications such as The Lost Continent, Mother Tongue, Made In America, Notes From A Small Island, and Down Under.
He said in his acceptance speech that his prize cheque would go to charity - and this gesture was immediately matched by Dr Dirk Oldenburg, chairman of the board of management of the Aventis Foundation.
The Aventis Prize for books aimed at junior readers was awarded this year to the author Nick Arnold and illustrator Tony De Saulles for their publication Really Rotten Experiments.
Arnold and De Saulles have been this way before
Their book outlines entertaining scientific experiments children can perform at home.
It is the second time this pair has won the honour and breaks the stranglehold publisher Dorling Kindersley has had on the category in recent years.
Lord Robert May, the current president of the Royal Society, said the Aventis Prizes celebrated the "great communicators" who helped the world come to terms with the rapid changes brought about by developments in science.
"We need to move into a world in which an informed citizenry decides what use we make of knowledge," he remarked in his speech.
"The key thing is engagement of an informed citizenry - not a citizenry which anguishes over an arcadia that is lost but never was; nor a citizenry that yearns for a cloud cuckoo land that never will be.
"[We need] a citizenry that understands the difficult choices - the costs and benefits - and has a clear understanding of the world upon us."
The full shortlist for the
2004 General Prize:
- A Short History Of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson (Doubleday/Transworld)
- In The Beginning Was The Worm, by Andrew Brown (Simon & Schuster)
- Magic Universe, by Nigel Calder (Oxford University Press)
- Mutants, by Armand Marie Leroi (Penguin: Viking USA)
- Nature Via Nurture, by Matt Ridley (Fourth Estate)
- Backroom Boys, by Francis Spufford (Faber & Faber)
The shortlisted books for the
2004 Junior Prize:
- Really Rotten Experiments, by Nick Arnold and Tony De Saulles (Scholastic Children's Books)
- The Beginning: Voyages Through Time, by Peter Ackroyd (Dorling Kindersley)
- Riotous Robots, by Mike Goldsmith (Scholastic Children's Books)
- Start Science: Forces And Motion, by Sally Hewitt (Chrysalis Children's Books)
- Tell Me: Who Lives in Space?, by Clare Oliver (Chrysalis Children's Books)
- Survivors Science: In The Rainforest, by Peter Riley (Hodder Wayland)