Thursday, September 9, 2010
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
This book absolutely lives up to its title, except possibly the "short" part. The hardcover clocks in at 544 pages, including notes and index, which makes it quite luggable. I suppose, however, when compared to the geologic ages that preceded our brief existence on this earth, the book and the years it took to write it are indeed quite short. In those 544 pages, however, we explore everything, from the dawn of time up until the dawn of human history, from the infinitely tiny hearts of quarks to the infinitely huge scale of the universe. Biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, paleontology - whatever your science of choice is, it's in this book. And even if you're thinking, "Science really isn't my thing," I have good news for you - it will be when you're finished.
One of the things that makes Bryson an excellent writer is simply his ability to make you enjoy reading his work, no matter what the topic is. He's most well known for his travel books, such as Notes from a Big Country and A Walk in the Woods, as well as his books on the English language, such as Mother Tongue. When I first read him, he struck me as a more literate version of Dave Barry - a very intelligent guy with a fantastic sense of humor. No matter what he writes, you can't help but enjoy it.
This book, then, must have been a massive challenge for him. He admits right in the beginning that, before he started this book, he pretty much had no idea what he was going to find out. He wasn't a scientist or a naturalist, and had no idea how it was that we knew, for example, that the Earth had an iron core, or how we knew that the universe was expanding or why uranium was so easy to split up. How do we know that the continents drift across the face of the globe, or that we really are cousins to chimpanzees? He started from a state of ignorance, and spent three years removing himself from that state.
That, in and of itself, is admirable. There seems to be an unfortunate trend in thinking that science is too hard for the normal person to understand. In some cases people believe that if it is indeed too hard for the normal person to understand then, why, it must be impossible to understand. This is the "argument from ignorance" fallacy, and it's something that's easy to fall prey to. After all, no one likes to admit that they don't know things, and if your pride is bigger than your conscience it might be all too easy to assume that if you can't understand it then no one can. Thus the whole Intelligent Designer nonsense and the continuing battles.... in the TWENTY-FIRST GODSDAMNED CENTURY.... over whether or not evolution is the process by which we can explain the fantastic diversity of life on this planet.
Sorry about that. The neurochemical processes that allowed my distant ancestors to fight off predators (AKA the famous "fight or flight reflex") tends to manifest itself these days as blasphemy and shouting. I'll try and keep it down from now on.
If you're like me, and you've been a dabbler in science for a long time, you'll still learn something new. Not the least of what you will learn is what the Greatest Scientific Minds of our Time were like as people. Bryson does his best to bring out the humanity of people like Newton, Lowell, Einstein, Kelvin and everyone else. There's a whole lot of fighting, lying, deceiving and backstabbing that brought us to where we are today, and if they had taught me that in science class when I was a kid, I probably would have gotten better grades.
In fact, one of the most interesting things about this book is that it's not so much a book about science as it's a book about scientists. By looking at the people who figured out how the universe works, we learned about why science works the way it does - and sometimes doesn't - and get a real sense of how human understanding progresses. There are flashes of insight and stubborn refusals to see what is plainly true. There are lost geniuses and shameless opportunists, missed chances and serendipitous discoveries. Science, in short, is a human endeavor, with all the glamor and tarnish that comes with it. By emphasizing the humanity of the men and women who have driven science forward, Bryson is able to let us see our own place in the process.
What's more, Bryson takes great care to point out the areas where we have failed, or at least not yet succeeded. Cells, for example, are baffling organic machines that outperform human-made devices by an outlandish margin. We don't know as much as we think about pre-history - our fossil record is far more spotty than the Natural History Museum would have you believe, mainly because fossilization requires very specific conditions, not the least of which is a bit of good luck. There could be entire branches of the tree of life that we don't know because they had the misfortune to occupy an environment that didn't promote fossilization. We don't even know how many species of life are on Earth right now - or how many we've lost.
The history of humanity is twisted and confusing, with no clear answers as to where we came from, how we arose and how we spread across the globe. There are so many mysteries to be solved, and so few people available to solve them.
If you're not a science nerd, you'll still enjoy the book. Remember - up until he wrote it, Bryson was one of you. His style is very readable, and he guides you very deftly from one topic to the next, illustrating a very important point: all science is connected. There is no discrete boundary between, say, chemistry and biology (no matter what the chemists and biologists might tell you), just a fuzzy blur where we pass from one to the other. The greatest advances in our knowledge of how the universe works have come from the most unlikely places, and sometimes knowing why atoms behave the way they do can help understand why the universe behaves the way it does.
Yes, learning is hard. But when you're done, you are rewarded with a new sense of understanding and awe about how the universe works. And that wins over ignorance any day.
"We live on a planet that has a more or less infinite capacity to surprise. What reasoning person could possibly want it any other way?"
- Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
Bill Bryson on Wikipedia
A Short History of Nearly Everything on Wikipedia
A Short History of Nearly Everything on Amazon.com
Bill Bryson's website