Published online 12 May 2005 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news050509-13


Nature journalist scoops £10,000

Philip Ball wins the Aventis book prize for Critical Mass.

Phil Ball, reporter and columnist.Phil Ball, reporter and columnist.

The prestigious Aventis Prize for science books has been won by Philip Ball, part of the team and a consulting editor at Nature.

Ball bagged the £10,000 (US$19,000) award for Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another, which describes how statistics and physics have been used to explain social phenomena.

The book beat stiff competition from such literary luminaries as Richard Dawkins, Robert Winston and Richard Fortey.

In addition to the prize money, Ball may have won cash by betting on his own victory. Bookmaker's William Hill said that his book was the outsider of the competition, quoting 8:1 odds on his winning.

"This is a wide-ranging and dazzlingly informative book about the science of interactions," says Bill Bryson, chairman of the judging panel and winner of last year's prize. By explaining the mathematics of human group behaviour, Critical Mass explores the efforts of physicists and social scientists to describe the patterns behind economic crashes, stampeding crowds and the development of traffic jams.

Ball received his prize at a ceremony on 12 May with Robert May, the president of the Royal Society, London, and Dirk Oldenburg, who is on the board of the pharmaceutical giant Aventis.

Ball worked at Nature as a physical-sciences editor for more than ten years. He contributes regularly to, and has written about Aventis winners for this site in the past. He is also science-writer-in-residence for the chemistry department of University College London. Critical Mass is his eighth book, with previous publications including The Ingredients: A Guided Tour of the Elements and H2O: A Biography of Water.


"Throughout his career as an author, Phil has courageously popularized the science of the commonplace... for materials, colour, water and now patterns of human behaviour," says Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature. "I only hope that this deserved award encourages new readers to explore his books in all their diversity."