Wednesday, June 6, 2007

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

It's true, I haven't posted anything in over a month now. But, not to worry dear friends, for I have returned, and with a vengeance. Best watch your back, Chris. There's a new sheriff in town.

As it turns out, Bill Bryson writes more than just great travelogues. A Short History of Nearly Everything is a sort of science primer, giving a brief but thorough introduction to almost every field of popular science. He says that he set out to make scientific knowledge accessible to those people (most of us) who were stuck with completely dull, unreadable textbooks in high school and college. He certainly does a great job putting huge, unapproachable concepts and figures in perfectly understandalbe perspective.

It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.

Each section gives a history of a certain branch of the scientific world, as well as a brief summary and explanation of its basic tenets. The book moves as chronologically as is possible, while still maintaining clear divisions for the many different “–ologies.” He starts with the Big Bang, age of the Universe, our place in it, and finishes with the evolution of man and a chapter on massive extinctions that are taking place today. In between the book is packed with an unbelievable amount of information – completely readable information – on geology, paleontology, earth science, climatology, evolution, physics, particle physics, of all things, biology, zoology… I could go on. What struck me most was the unseen politics of the scientific world. There have been some serious words exchanged over whether a type of rock belongs to one geological era or the next and personal attacks of character made over fossil classification. Also, Sir Isaac Newton was apparently a complete nutcase. He’s reported to have stuck a nine inch hatpin in between his eye and the socket, pushing it as far back as it would go until it met resistance, just to see what might happen.

Bryson spent years traveling the globe to meet with the authorities (major and minor) in each of these fields, trying to get as much of a handle on each of their areas of expertise as he could before writing this book. What results is a book that has a bibliography with well over 250 entries, not to mention the informal interviews, which is completely and absolutely accessible by someone with no background in scientific education whatsoever. And all this without losing his unique tone and style; it’s still funny, which is quite a feat when your subject matter includes such topics as mitochondrial DNA genetics, carbon and radioactive dating techniques, and tectonic plate theory. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that the book is very dense. It took me weeks to get through it just because there is so much information to absorb – I underlined practically the entire text. But it’s definitely worth the effort. I can’t count how many times I set the book in my lap just to look up and say “wow,” to absolutely no one, or annoyed the hell out of my girlfriend by tapping her on the shoulder and recounting some scientific tidbit that I found fascinating, mostly when she was trying to sleep.

As an environmental studies student who's fascinated by evolution, this is one of my new favorites. I plan to keep it close at hand as a reference from now on. If you don’t care much for any branch of the sciences, this book is probably not for you. If you’d like to get a better understanding of the broad range of scientific information out there, then, by all means, read it.


Carlton said...

How does your girlfriend feel about your mancrush on Bill Bryson?

Nathan said...

She tolerates it, but it may have been too much when I started sobbing because he hadn't returned any of my letters (still no sign, I'm sure it's something to do with the postal service).

Nihil Novum said...

I just bought Neither Here Not There by Bill Bryson for 34.5 cents. It better be worth it.