Annal: 2005 Aventis Prize for General Science Book

Results of the Aventis Prize in the year 2005.

Book:Critical Mass

Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another

Philip Ball

Are there any “laws of nature” that influence the ways in which humans behave and organize themselves? In the seventeenth century, tired of the civil war ravaging England, Thomas Hobbes decided that he would work out what kind of government was needed for a stable society. His approach was based not on utopian wishful thinking but rather on Galileo’s mechanics to construct a theory of government from first principles. His solution is unappealing to today’s society, yet Hobbes had sparked a new way of thinking about human behavior in looking for the “scientific” rules of society.

Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Auguste Comte, and John Stuart Mill pursued this idea from different political perspectives. Little by little, however, social and political philosophy abandoned a “scientific” approach. Today, physics is enjoying a revival in the social, political and economic sciences. Ball shows how much we can understand of human behavior when we cease to try…[more]

Book:The Ancestor's Tale

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

Richard Dawkins

The Ancestor’s Tale is a pilgrimage back through time; a journey on which we meet up with fellow pilgrims along the route as we and they converge on our common ancestors. Chimpanzees join us at about 6 million years in the past, gorillas at 7 million years, orangutans at 14 million years, as we stride on together, a growing band.

The journey provides the setting for a collection of some 40 tales. Each explores an aspect of evolutionary biology through the stories of characters met along the way or glimpsed from afar—the Elephant Bird’s Tale, the Marsupial Mole’s Tale, the Coelacanth’s Tale. Together they give a deep understanding of the processes that have shaped life on Earth: convergent evolution, the isolation of populations, continental drift, the great extinctions. The tales are interspersed with prologues detailing the journey, route maps showing joining lineages, and life-like reconstructions of our common ancestors. …[more]

Book:Earth: An Intimate History

Earth: An Intimate History

Richard Fortey

The face of the earth, crisscrossed by chains of mountains like the scars of old wounds, has changed and changed again over billions of years, and the testament of the remote past is all around us. In this book Richard Fortey teaches us how to read its character, laying out the dominions of the world before us. He shows how human culture and natural history–even the shape of cities–are rooted in this deep geological past.

In search of this past, Fortey takes us through the Alps, into Icelandic hot springs, down to the ocean floor, over the barren rocks of Newfoundland, into the lush ecosystems of Hawai’i, across the salt flats of Oman, and along the San Andreas Fault. On the slopes of Vesuvius, he tracks the history of the region down through the centuries?to volcanic eruptions seen by fifteenth-century Italians, the Romans, and, from striking geological evidence, even Neolithic man. As story adds to story, the recent…[more]

Book:The Human Mind

The Human Mind: And How to Make the Most of It

Robert Winston

New technological developments help us understand how the brain gives rise to the human mind. We can now see the extraordinary complexity of the brain’s circuits, watch which regions use energy and which nerve cells generate electricity as we fall in love, tell a lie or dream of a lottery win. And inside the 100 billion cells of this rubbery network is something remarkable: you.

In this entertaining and accessible book, Robert Winston takes us deep into the workings of the human mind, revealing how our senses, emotions and personality are the result of a ballet of genes and environment that shapes the path of our lives. Here, as he explains how memories are formed and lost, and how the everchanging brain is responsible for toddler tantrums, teenage angst and the battle of the sexes, he also reveals the truth behind extrasensory perception, deja vu and out-of-body experiences. …[more]

Book:Matters of Substance

Matters of Substance: Drugs—And Why Everyone's a User

Griffith Edwards

Drugs can be injected, snorted, smoked or swallowed. They can heighten excitement or numb emotion. They are sold by multi-national corporations and on street corners. They can cure and kill.

Matters of Substance is a fascinating global tour of drugs and our ambivalent relationship with them. From alcohol to amphetamines, cannabis to crack cocaine, heroin to valium, Griffith Edwards reveals the history, culture and language behind each type of drug—their physical and psychological effects, medical uses, trade routes, the involvement of big business and the chequered path of control and legislation. He considers the key issues surrounding drugs: which are most dangerous? Why do some people become addicted? What causes a drug epidemic? As Edwards argues, only when we truly understand drugs can we hope to deal with them, and this enlightened and informative book will inform all future debates on the subject.

Book:Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older

Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes our Past

Douwe Draaisma, Arnold J. Pomerans, Erica Pomerans

Is it true, as the novelist Cees Nooteboom once wrote, that memory is like a dog that lies down where it pleases? Where do the long, lazy summers of our childhood go? Why, as we grow older, does time seem to condense, speed up and elude us, while in old age, significant events from our distant past can seem as vivid and real as what happened yesterday?

Douwe Draaisma, author of the internationally acclaimed Metaphors of Memory (Cambridge, 2001), explores the nature of autobiographical memory. Applying a unique blend of scholarship, poetic sensibility, and keen observation, he tackles such extraordinary phenomena as deja-vu, near-death experiences, the memory feats of idiot savants, and the effects of extreme trauma on memory recall. Raising almost as many questions as it answers, this fascinating book will not fail to affect you at the same time as it educates and entertains. …[more]

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