Six new science books are engaged in a very close race for the prestigious Aventis Prize, which celebrates the very best popular science writing.
Robert Winston has entries in both the adult and the junior prize shortlists
Panellists have said all the contenders this year are extremely strong, with any one of them capable of winning.
Bill Bryson, last year's winner with his book A Short History Of Nearly Everything, chairs the panel, which features both the arts and sciences.
"Some entries have even altered aspects of our outlook on life," Bryson said.
The shortlist for the adult prize includes Robert Winston and Richard Dawkins, as well as some less well known authors. Robert Winston actually has entries in both the adult and the junior prize shortlists, which has never been done before.
The General Prize winner will take home the tidy sum of £10,000, but the real reward is the massive sales which usually follow - Bill Bryson's victorious book has been a runaway bestseller.
The winning book must be informative, readable and, most importantly, accessible to the general public.
"All the books are great in their own ways, but we are trying to find a book that will appeal to the widest audience possible, without patronising them," said panellist Lisa Burke, who is a Sky News weather presenter.
Miss Burke said that last year Bill Bryson's book was a very obvious winner, but this year's judges have a tougher job because the competition is very close.
Burke: Perhaps something different is needed
"All the books bring up completely different issues which are relevant to us all today - and the quality is fantastic," she told the BBC News website.
"I'm finding it difficult because I have about three or four favourites so it is going to be very hard."
She did hint that this year's winner might not be in the traditional popular science book mould. "We have had a spate of books on the Universe and a spat of books on biology - so to have a slightly different angle on a scientific subject, just to bring uniqueness to it, would be great," she said.
The winner of the Aventis Prize will be announced at a gala dinner on 12 May.
The full shortlist for the 2005 General Prize:
Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another, by Philip Ball (William Heinemann) This book invites us to examine our own behaviour; whether in buying the new Harry Potter book, voting for a particular party or responding to the lure of advertisers. Philip Ball shows how much we can understand about human behaviour when we cease to try to predict and analyse the behaviour of individuals and instead look to the impact of hundreds, thousands or millions of individual human decisions.
The Ancestor's Tale, by Richard Dawkins (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) This is a pilgrimage back through time - a journey that provides the setting for a collection of some 40 tales, each exploring an aspect of evolutionary biology through the stories of characters met along the way. Together they give an understanding of the processes which have shaped life on Earth; convergent evolution, the isolation of populations, continental drift and even the great extinctions.
Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older by Douwe Draaisma (Cambridge University Press) Where do the long, lazy summers of our childhood go? Why is it that as we grow older time seems to condense, speed up, and elude us while in old age significant events from our distant past can seem as vivid and as real as that which happened yesterday? In the book, Douwe Draaisma, explores the nature of autobiographical memory and extraordinary phenomena such as déjà-vu, the memory feats of idiot-savants or the effects of extreme trauma on memory recall.
Matters Of Substance: Drugs - And Why Everyone's A User by Griffith Edwards (Penguin, Allen Lane) Matters of Substance presents a radical approach to the question of drug control. Examining the history of our relationship with the vast array of mind-acting drugs since the 14th Century, Edwards explores why drugs are as important to the global youth culture of the 21st Century as they were in the 14th.
The Earth: An Intimate History by Richard Fortey (HarperCollins) Fortey introduces readers to the Earth's distinct character, revealing the life that it leads when humans are not watching. He follows the continual movement of seabeds, valleys, mountain ranges and ice caps and shows how everything - our culture, natural history, even the formation of our cities - has its roots in geology.
The Human Mind by Robert Winston (Bantam Press/ Transworld Publishers) Winston tells us how our senses, emotions, personality, feelings and intelligence are the result of a ballet of genes and environment that shapes the path of our lives. He explains how memories are formed and lost, how the ever-changing brain is responsible for toddler tantrums, teenage angst, the battle of the sexes, the insights gained from Shakespeare, Pirandello and Larkin; and the truth behind extra-sensory perception, déjà vu and out-of-body experiences.
The shortlist for the 2005 Junior Prize:
Kingfisher Knowledge: Endangered Planet by David Burnie (Kingfisher) As humans continue to influence every habitat in the world, this book is a timely reminder of our responsibilities to preserve our fragile Earth and to save the hundreds of species of animal and plant life which become extinct each year. With digital artwork and information panels throughout, this is a book which hopes to inspire the younger generation to think about how to live in harmony with the planet and safeguard it for future generations.
Mysteries And Marvels Of Science by Phillip Clarke, Laura Howell and Sarah Khan (Usborne) This book combines photography with illustrations to reveal the science behind everyday events in our world. From the mysteries of atoms to the possibility of thinking robots and machines the size of sand grains, this book aims to inspire and stimulate the scientists of tomorrow.
Leap Through Time: Earthquake by Nicholas Harris (Orpheus) This book takes its readers on a journey, from the initial rumbles of an earthquake to the violent shaking, the toppling of buildings, the collapse of bridges and the vast waves which engulf the shore. As each page is turned, the story moves on by a few seconds, a few minutes, a few hours or even a few years to record the consequences of the earthquake and the rebuilding process needed to return to normality.
Night Sky Atlas by Robin Scagell (Dorling Kindersley) This practical book takes readers on a journey across the night sky, bringing the subject to life with easy-to-follow guides to understanding and recognising the most obscure night sky phenomena. With space photography, see-through pages and detailed diagrams pinpointing constellations and fascinating stars, this book is perfect for any budding astronomer.
Kingfisher Knowledge: Microscopic Life by Richard Walker (Kingfisher) Winner of the Aventis Junior Prize in 2002, Richard Walker makes another appearance on the short-list with his guide to exploring the miniature world all around us. Microscopic Life investigates the tiny creatures that live around us, inside us and even on us - creatures so small they cannot be seen without microscopes.
What Makes Me, Me? by Robert Winston (Dorling Kindersley) This is the first children's book to attempt to unravel how biology and experience make each person individually themselves. Questions such as "why do we have hairy fingers?", "which of my parents is to blame for my fear of spiders?" and "why are some people left-handed?" are all debated and discussed. The book tells the story of the human mind and body from a child's point of view, while the tests and quizzes make reading the book an interactive experience and help children to see how the information relates back to themselves.