Popular-science writing reviewed

Next week, the prestigious Aventis prize for popular-science writing (won in previous years by celebrated authors such as Stephen Hawking and Stephen Jay Gould) is awarded. Steve Connor assesses the shortlisted books - and previews the contenders for the junior section
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The Independent Culture

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

More than any other book on the shortlist, this one's outstanding success has been driven by the celebrity status of the author rather than the content. Bill Bryson, a travel writer and a former Independent journalist, said that he got the idea for writing a popular-science book while on a long 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 says.

He attempts to explain in his jocular style such mega concepts as the Big Bang and Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. He admits that some things defy adequate description, but he makes a good stab at it, anyway.

Of course, any attempt at cramming the gamut of scientific knowledge into one book is bound to miss out on some things, and exaggerate the significance of others. Yet Bryson manages to distil enough of the hard stuff without making us feel queasy about what we have been asked to imbibe.

This is an overwhelmingly personal perspective on science, and those who do not like Bryson's comic style may find it difficult to stay the course. Nevertheless, to have an already famous non-science author shortlisted for the science-book prize is a real coup for the organisers. If Bryson wins - and he must be a favourite - it would certainly raise the profile of the award.

Doubleday/Transworld, £8.99

Magic Universe by Nigel Calder

Like Bryson, Nigel Calder attempts to paint the wider landscape of science, but there the comparison ends. Calder is a veteran science writer, having spent around half a century popularising the subject's deeper recesses. In this compendium he deals seriously yet entertainingly with just about every scientific subject you can imagine, and many that you cannot.

In the 750 pages of this mighty tome, he deals with everything from alcohol to volcanic explosions. This book is for dipping into rather than reading from cover to cover - although that is possible, as he lumps subjects together to form extended essays. It will no doubt serve as a solid reference source for many years to come.

One can imagine that this could be a handicap when the judges come to make their final deliberations. A book that tells a single, strong story frequently has more impact than one that offers a smorgasbord of different delicacies. That said, the science-book prize does have a history of awarding non-narrative reads.

Oxford University Press, £25

Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi

In what is probably the shortlist's most disturbing book, Armand Marie Leroi looks at what happens when genes malfunction, and examines the different ways in whichmutants have been viewed throughout history.

Perhaps the most distressing story of all is the case of the Ovitz family, who had a form of pseudoachondroplasia that leaves much of the body unaffected, but causes the limbs to grow short and bowed. The Ovitzes - Transylvanian Jews who toured Europe as part of a wartime troupe of performing artists - were captured by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz, where they were subjected to painful experiments by Josef Mengele, who was obsessed with finding out why their limbs were so short.

Other instances of human mutation had a less horrific outcome. The hairy-faced family of Shwe-Maong went in three generations from the jungles of Laos, to the court of King Bagydaw of Burma, to the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, before finally ending up on the stage of the Follies Bergères in Paris.

We have an unhealthy fascination with freaks and mutants, and Leroi does his best not to pander to the more prurient side of human nature. He attempts to explain how developmental defects arise, and to put them into some sort of context. Yet there are times when one cannot help feeling that the basic fascination of this book springs from the same instinct that served to keep the Victorian freakshow in business. As a result, it would make it an uneasy choice as winner of this award.

Penguin/Viking, £20

In the Beginning Was the Worm by Andrew Brown

The central character in this book is a tiny worm, barely visible to the naked eye, that lives in compost heaps and performs the most rudimentary functions of life. The worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, was chosen in 1965 by the brilliant molecular biologist Sydney Brenner to tell the untold story of life. He wanted it as a laboratory model for explaining how genes construct a true multicellular organism from a single cell.

Andrew Brown, like Bill Bryson a former Independent journalist, has a knack for showing the human element behind the science. He describes not just what was done in the name of scientific endeavour, but how scientists went about doing it, and what motivated the men (for it was usually men) who would spend up to 16 hours a day peering down microscopes.

C. elegans is about the simplest form of multicellular life you can imagine. It consists of just 902 cells and grows no more than half a millimetre long, yet it possesses some 20,000 genes (about two-thirds of the human complement) and engages in voracious hermaphrodite sex.

More than 30 years after Brenner's brilliant decision to pick this nematode worm to explain the machinations of genes, C. elegans has become perhaps the single most analysed animal in the world.

Those involved in its study, including Brenner himself and Sir John Sulston, went on to greater things - in the case of Sulston, the human genome project. It is greatly to Brown's credit that he chose his subject so well - three of the main characters involved in the worm project subsequently went on to share the Nobel prize after the book was published.

Simon and Schuster, £7.99

Nature via Nurture by Matt Ridley

Most science books aim to explain, some try to entertain and a few offer an argument. Matt Ridley, who is no stranger to the science-book shortlist, does all three with his customary expertise. This time, he claims that the ancient dispute over whether it is nature or nurture moulds humanity can finally be resolved. It is not nature or nurture, it is both, with one (nature) often acting through the intermediary of the other.

For Ridley, whose past writings have erred strongly on the side of hard-line genetic determinism, this is something of a Pauline conversion. Yet as he admits, there is now a growing body of evidence to support the idea that we develop into who we are not merely because of the genes we inherit or the environment we grow up in, but because of a subtle and often complex interaction of the two.

A case in point is the gene involved with a brain chemical. There is a high-activity and a low-activity version of this gene. Inherit either version and, provided you grow up in a non-abusive household, there is no significant difference to the risk of your becoming anti-social in later life. The same is true if you inherit a high-activity gene, but are abused as a child. But if you are unlucky enough to inherit the low-activity gene as well as being subjected to childhood abuse, the risk of being anti-social and violent in adulthood increases significantly.

If the award is for explaining difficult concepts with flair, this book should win it.

Fourth Estate, £8.99

Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford

British science and engineering has frequently fallen victim to the cult of amateurism, thanks to a culture of chronic underfunding that has forced scientists to improvise with old detergent bottles and sticky-backed plastic.

In this book, Francis Spufford relates in poetic fashion how some of the greatest British research projects of the last century - from the early days of rocket science through to Concorde, computer games and the human genome project - still managed to excel, despite such national constraints.

Faber & Faber, £14.99


The Beginning: Voyages Through Time by Peter Ackroyd

The novelist and noted biographer turns his hand to exploring the story of life on Earth, from its microbial beginnings to the demise of the dinosaurs and the rise of birds ( below) and mammals.

Dorling Kindersley, £14.99

Really Rotten Experiments by Nick Arnold and Tony De Saulles

Perfect for keeping the kids occupied on a rainy day, this is full of useful tips, such as how to keep a banknote dry under water, and fun, naughty experiments (the one that involves the skunk dance springs to mind).

Scholastic Children's Books, £4.99

Riotous Robots by Mike Goldsmith

First they were a figment of our imagination. Then they started to replace factory workers and make cars. Now they do our housework and carry out brain surgery. All you ever wanted to know about robots.

Scholastic Children's Books, £4.99

Start Science: Forces and Motion by Sally Hewitt

Physics for the very young, focusing on pulleys, wheels, gears, floating, sinking and friction. Pictures of scenes at the seaside, the park and on a building site help children spot the science behind many everyday activities.

Chrysalis Children's Books, £11.99

Tell Me: Who Lives In Space? by Clare Oliver

Do stars live forever? What makes them shine? Why do comets have tails and who went to the Moon? The answer to the titular question - who lives in space? - is that no one does, for very long.

Chrysalis Children's Books, £7.99

Survivor's Science: In The Rainforest by Peter Riley

Discover the survival skills of the people, animals and plants that live in the hottest, wettest place on Earth. Rainforests, the most biologically diverse regions of the world, are endlessly fascinating. Along with plenty of other interesting facts, this book explains why you need to wash your clothes every two days if you want to stop them rotting away.

Hodder Wayland, £11.99