An outsider's view on interactivity is a surprise science publishing winner

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A rank outsider has won the most prestigious prize in science publishing with a book on how one thing leads to another.

A rank outsider has won the most prestigious prize in science publishing with a book on how one thing leads to another.

Philip Ball, a former journalist, has beaten the Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins and the television celebrity Robert Winston, who were both on the shortlist of six, to become winner of this year's Aventis Prize for science books.

Winston took consolation by winning the junior category, chosen by a panel of 800 children, with his book What Makes Me, Me?

Ball's book, Critical Mass, is a mix of science, history, philosophy and sociology and attempts to explain how chance and necessity interplay in terms of human culture, customs and institutions, and how co-operation and conflicts arise.

He deals with all manner of complex interactions, from the random movements of a gas molecule and the swirling rotations of spiral galaxies to the paths people tend to follow when walking through a public park.

If planners could have a better understanding of statistical physics they could be liberated from their linear thinking and have a greater sophistication in the perception of cause and effect, Ball argues.

The judges said his book - which was an 8-1 outsider - examines our behaviour and shows how much we can understand 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 human decisions.

The chairman of the judging panel,Bill Bryson, who won the award last year with A Short History of Nearly Everything, said Ball's book stood out from what was a very strong shortlist.

"This was a difficult decision. All on the panel agreed that any one of the six shortlisted would have been a worthy winner. Ultimately, we were extremely impressed by the depth of knowledge and how it was deployed," Bryson said.

"This is a wide-ranging and dazzlingly informed book about the science of interactions. I can promise you'll be amazed," he said.

Lord May of Oxford, president of the Royal Society, presented Ball and Winston with cheques for £10,000 each at the awards ceremony last night at the Royal Society in London.

"Aventis Prizes winners excel at bringing complex issues to broad audiences in an exciting and engaging manner, Lord May said.

"Critical Mass reflects the high calibre of writing that the Aventis Prizes have become synonymous with."