Bryson's book starts with a description of the Big Bang and the origins of the universe, before going on to describe how scientists discovered the size, mass and age of the universe. It then tackles relativity, quantum theory, quarks and the Standard Model, followed by plate tectonics, life on Earth, evolution and finally, human civilization.

When the book was published Bryson said that his aim was to "take subjects that normally bore the pants off most of us, like geology, chemistry and particle physics, and see if there isn't some way to render them comprehensible to people who have never thought they could be interested in science".

The chair of the judging panel, Robert Winston of Imperial College, described Bryson's book as "ambitious" and said that it would "communicate science to the widest possible audience in an intelligent and highly accessible way."

Previous winners of the prize include two books written by theoretical physicists: The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking (2002) and The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene (2000).