Bill Bryson wins book prize with first foray into science

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The bestselling travel writer Bill Bryson has beaten veteran science writers to win a £10,000 award for the best popular science book.

Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything was selected for the general category in the Aventis prizes for science books 2004. The book travels through time and space and introduces the reader to the universe, the world, and the rise of civilisation, explaining some major scientific concepts on the way.

Professor Robert Winston, the chairman of the panel of six judges, said last night at the awards ceremony in London: "This ambitious book will communicate science to the widest possible audience in an intelligent and highly accessible way."

The prize has been won by distinguished scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Stephen Jay Gould.

There were signs that the decision was not easily reached among the judges who said in a statement that the overall standard of books this year was very high, with a 20 per cent increase in the number of entrants compared with the previous year.

"The committee felt that this was a particularly outstanding shortlist and our unanimous decision was made only after considerable discussion," the judges said.

The other five books on the shortlist were In the Beginning was the Worm by Andrew Brown, Magic Universe by Nigel Calder, Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi, Nature via Nurture by Matt Ridley and Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford. All the runners-up received £1,000.

Bryson, a former journalist, said that he came up with the idea of writing a popular science book while on a flight over the Pacific. "It occurred to me with a certain uncomfortable forcefulness that I didn't know the first thing about the only planet I was ever going to live on," he said.

Bryson attempts to explain the world by investigating seven distinct topics: 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 on the planet, the origins and history of life and the evolution of man.

Bryson, who was born in America and has a British wife, made his name with a book that looked at the eccentricities of Britain, Notes from a Small Island. A Short History of Nearly Everything, his first science book, is also shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize, which is to be announced tonight.

The junior category of the Aventis science book prize was won by the author Nick Arnold and the illustrator Tony De Saulles for Really Rotten Experiments, a book that dares children to carry out their own research with a series of bizarre experiments.