Journeys to the centre of the Earth

From evolution and geology to addiction and memory, the shortlist for the 2005 Aventis Prize for science books is gloriously diverse. Steve Connor takes stock
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The Independent Culture

The two winners of the Aventis Prizes for science books - one writing for children and another for adults - will each walk away with £10,000 and the glory of the most prestigious award in popular science writing.

The two winners of the Aventis Prizes for science books - one writing for children and another for adults - will each walk away with £10,000 and the glory of the most prestigious award in popular science writing.

This year sees Richard Dawkins and Robert Winston battling it out with four other shortlisted authors for the general prize, which will be announced at the Royal Society in London on 12 May.

"All of the books on the short list are accessible, interesting, challenging, well researched and highly enjoyable," says Bill Bryson, last year's winner and chairman of the judges.

The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life

By Richard Dawkins (Weidenfeld Nicolson, £25)

Dawkins is no stranger to the Aventis Prize, having already appeared twice on the shortlist. This book could be his magnum opus, given the scale of the territory he covers - travelling back in time from the present to the origin of life some four billion years ago.

Dawkins likens the journey to a medieval pilgrimage, similar to that described in The Canterbury Tales, wherein pilgrims meet each other on the road to their final destination - in this case, the starting point of life on Earth.

We humans are the pilgrims. We travel back in time to meet our common ancestors. Simultaneously, all the other creatures alive today set off on the same quest. In tracing these twin journeys, Dawkins underlines that all life on Earth today has a common origin. We are all related, from monkey to microbe, from elephant to eubacteria.

The Human Mind, and How to Make the Most of It

By Robert Winston (Bantam Press, £7.99)

The other big name on the shortlist. Lord Winston - who is also on the shortlist in the junior category - has inspired and entertained millions with his television programmes on the human body and brain. Here, he covers the field with his customary thoroughness and wit - from the 19th-century phrenologists who believed they could diagnose people's personalities by feeling bumps on the head, to the effect of psychedelic drugs on the biochemistry of the brain.

One of the most intriguing chapters deals with the role of the brain in the act of falling in love. Attraction to a potential mate in Darwinian terms should be based on recognising qualities that would assist in the rearing of children. But is there such a thing as "true love" in a biological sense? "Fortunately, the answer is yes," Lord Winston says. Brain scans have even located the part of the brain that is stimulated most when we gaze on photographs of loved ones. The feelings are not unlike those we experience when tormented by bouts of obsession. Love, it seems, is very similar to mental illness.

The Earth: an Intimate History

By Richard Fortey (Perennial, £9.99)

According to Bryson, who is quoted on the cover of Fortey's latest book, this author is dazzling and without peers among science writers. Praise indeed from a member of the judging panel, which must make this rich tome one of the competition favourites.

Whoever said that geology is just a load of old rocks? Fortey brings the subject alive, quite literally, given the role that geology has played in the origin and evolution of life on Earth. Virtually nothing escapes from the all-pervading influence of the ground beneath our feet - even the taste of single malt whisky.

The Earth may seem a solid place, but it is constantly moving, grinding, groaning, spewing lava and venting gases. It is as dynamic as a living organism, but on a far grander timescale - measured in millions of years rather than minutes. Fortey tells the story of our planet in fascinating detail, and takes us on a tour of the highlights, from the hot Icelandic springs to the lush forested slopes of the Pacific islands.

Geological history has played a critical role in moulding human history, more so than many realise. Fortey waxes lyrical and engages the reader with anecdotes and first-hand descriptions. He is a true observer of the landscape.

Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another

By Philip Ball (Arrow, £9.99)

The movement of atoms, the formation of snowflakes and the organised chaos of a crowd - they are all governed by physics, mathematics and an element of randomness. Ball takes us on a tour of them, and throws in a quite a lot of philosophy on the way.

Ball describes his book as an enquiry into the interplay of chance and necessity. He deals with all sorts of complex interactions, from the random movements of a gas molecule to the swirling rotations of spiral galaxies.

This is more than a book about science; it's about despotism, war and utopia. It's also about more mundane things, such as town planning. Physics can explain the apparently random movements of atoms and galaxies, but can it help to do more than this? Can it help us to anticipate and, thereby, avoid problems and improve societies? "Or is that merely another dream destined for the already overflowing graveyard of utopias past?" asks Ball.

Matters of Substance: Drugs - and Why Everyone's a User

By Griffith Edwards (Allen Lane Science, £18.99)

There are more than 7,000 coffee bars in Britain and more than £27bn a year is spent on alcohol. Cannabis is used regularly by at least 150 million people in the world and 15 billion cigarettes are smoked every day worldwide. Some of us are addicted to the drug of our choice, and the rest of us can be described as regular users.

Edwards is an addiction specialist. In 1967, he set up Britain's first addiction unit, at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, at a time when the Sixties were getting into their swing and waves of young people were beginning to experiment with heroin. "We had sense of a storm blowing along our streets," he writes. "Since then, storm has followed storm without let-up."

This is a book about everything you need to know about drugs, and the damage they can do to the mind and body. Edwards deals with sedatives, stimulants, opiates, hallucinogens, cannabis and ecstasy, among many others. Drugs are packages that carry a surprise, says Edwards - none more than a nondescript weed from the New World that was brought back to Europe in the 15th century. Nearly 500 years later, tobacco is smoked by 1.1 billion people and is the cause of a global epidemic of smoking-related diseases.

Although this book lacks a narrative thread, it is highly readable and extremely informative.

Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past

By Douwe Draaisma (translated by Arno and Erica Pomerans, Cambridge University Press, £19.99)

How does the brain manage to store memories for so long, and what tricks are played when we experience a feeling of déjà vu? Draaisma, a professor of the history of psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, fills his book with stories from real life and literature to illustrate the underlying principles behind the storage, retrieval and perception of memories.

The identification of the Ukrainian Nazi, whose brutality in the extermination camp of Treblinka in Poland earned him the nickname Ivan the Terrible, is a classic example of the importance of memories. More than 30 years after the horrors of Treblinka, suspicion fell on John Demjanjuk, who in 1975 was a worker in the Ford motor car plant in Cleveland, Ohio. It was memory that led to his trial in Jerusalem and memory that led the Israelis to free him on the basis of mistaken identity.

There is less science in this book than any other on the shortlist, but it is still fascinating.

Junior prize shortlist

* Kingfisher Knowledge: Endangered Planet

By David Burnie (Kingfisher, £7.99)

* Mysteries and Marvels of Science

By Phillip Clarke, Laura Howell & Sarah Khan (Usborne, £12.99)

* Night Sky Atlas

By Robin Scagell (DK, £12.99)

* Leap Through Time: Earthquake

By Nicholas Harris (Orpheus, £7.99)

* What Makes Me, Me?

By Robert Winston (Dorling Kindersley, £9.99)

* Kingfisher Knowledge: Microscopic Life

By Richard Walker (Kingfisher, £7.99)