Sunday, February 05, 2006

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson - Review

"I didn’t know what a proton was, or a protein..."

In his latest book A Short History of Nearly Everything, author-journalist Bill Bryson (In a sunburned Country, “A Walk in the Woods and The Lost Continent), admits to something very common - fear and little knowledge of science. Realizing that he “didn’t know what a proton was, or a protein, didn’t know a quark from a quasar, didn’t know how an atom was put together and couldn’t imagine by what means anyone deduced such a thing,” the long-time travel writer set out to remedy his curiosity. A Short History of Nearly Everything is the culmination of his three years worth of effort.

Unlike most people looking to understand a subject in a little more depth, Bryson did not just hit the library. Instead, he hit the people who wrote the books in the library up for an explanation. Speaking to experts in fields as diverse as physics, paleontology and vulcanology, Bryson's explanations are real, factual, and complete. Unfortunately, the very nature of a book which intends to chronicle the universe in all its glory is limiting, and even a skill such as Bryson's cannot overcome the shallowness of the science contained therein.

Anecdotes pepper the science throughout this book, lending the list of facts a personality and humanity not usually found in science texts. While discussing chemistry in chapter seven, Bryson moves smoothly from the discoveries of Boyle in 1661 through seventeenth century alchemy and onward to the 'extraordinary and extraordinarily luckless' Karl Scheele, first discoverer of chlorine, flourine, manganese, barium, molybdenum, tungsten, nitorgen, and oxygen. Working in 1750s Sweden, Scheele published all his findings - in Swedish journals, where they went largely unnoticed. 'Had the world been just and English-speaking, Scheele would have enjoyed universal acclaim.' But, as Bryson points out, credit usually rests with the English-speaker, or, in this case, the famed, but late, Joseph Priestly and Humphry Davy.

“Alvin” was constructed by... General Mills!

Bryson readily admits that he began his research from a point of almost absolute ignorance, learning as he goes, but his presentation is as thorough as an expert’s. From my own knowledge, I can vouch for the physics facts he writes, and I expect that proofreading by his experts has ensured that he is similarly correct in all the other sciences. However, coming into everything from the outside helps him communicate the science to those who do not already know it in a clear fashion.

Coming at all these subjects from outside, Bryson is able to see more clearly than many experts where there micht be confusion, or what parts of the field are most interesting or require the most creative explanantion. One gets the impression that he was never willing to acept explanations he didn't understand, badgering away at his experts untill he was happy and then turning the resulting clear explanation into his exceptional prose.

"...if you watch a smoker sometime, yo ucan get a good idea of how [the atmosphere] work[s] by watching how smoke rises from a cigarette in a still room. At first it goes straight up... and then it spreads out in a diffused, wavy layer. The greatest supercomputer in the world, taking measurments in the most carefully controlled environment, cannot tell you what forms these ripplings will take, so you can imagine the difficulties that confront meteorologists when they try to predict such motions in a spinning, windy, large scale world." However, due to the vast distances covered by this intellectual journey, every visit is forced to be brief and thus shallow. Few with any experience will learn about their own fields – or at least the science there of. The attraction then, of this book is the number of fields is touches, and the opportunities to see how your field has merged with, impacted on or been affected by the others. It would be a rare physics major who knows less about string theory than Bryson tells us, but they can skim that chapter and move on to perhaps the sections on geology, vulcanology, taxonomy, paeleoanthropology, where there are many rewarding facts.

Even more rewarding is the wealth of historical flavor Bryson brings to the party. Rarely if ever is someone’s contributions to science mentioned without an accompanying anecdote – and one of the reasons I love “science history” books is the anecdotes about Newton or Halley or Kelvin or Darwin or Crick and Watson that I can use in conversation to sound more erudite than I really am. And Bryson delivers some zingers!

Opening A Short History of Nearly Everything randomly a few times I find (or fall upon – these honestly took no searching!) that “Alvin”, the premiere deep sea research submersible was constructed (on the navy’s dollar!) by breakfast cereal company General Mills! On another random page, Bryson reveals that when the great astronomer Hubble died, his wife refused to hold a funeral and never revealed the final disposition of the body. A third attempt informs the ever more astonished reader that Darwin’s position on board the Beagle was to provide Captain Fitzroy with dinner conversation! Captain Fitzroy, who intended to sail the Beagle around the pacific in search of evidence of his literal, biblical creationist beliefs!

At the end of his journey, Bryson appears to have answered all of the questions he posed himself at the beginning, but he has also come across many more places where he is far from alone in not knowing the answer – neither Bryson nor the experts he interviews are shy about admitting the often overlooked fact that science is always under revision, there are always more questions to answer, new mysteries appearing to take the place of those that are solved and new evidence emerging that throws out even the most widely held beliefs. Bryson does have to shuffle uneasily around some of the big mysteries, where they impede the flow of facts. For example, the very nature of string theory prevents a quick summary, and Bryson is forced to spend more words commenting on the sheer density of the typical string theory book and the theory itself.

A Short History of Nearly Everything is an exceptional popular science book. Bryson Covers so much, with enough detail and historical background that it would be a rare reader who does not gain some new knowledge from reading this. And Bryson's singular wit and delivery makes even the most often heard science fresh and fun to read. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in where everything we know comes from and any scientist who fears he knows too much about his own field and not enough about others.

Hopefully, this will not be Bryson's only foray into popular science writing - his skill at capturing the process and essence of science deserves as much acclaim as his travel writing.

Content Summary

"A Short History of Nearly Everything" is divided into six logical chapters, each telling a different part of the History of the Earth.

Lost in the cosmos.

Bryson talks about the big bang, astronomy and a day spent with a supernovae hunting priest in Australia. He touches on some of the great discoveries of cosmology, like the Cosmic Microwave Background and the formation of the solar system.

In “The Size of the Earth”, Bryson’s focus narrows – to the earth. He begins the section with the wager between Halley, Hooke and Wren that leads to Newton’s “Principia” and the Inverse Square Law of Gravity, discusses the uniquely solitary Cavendish who determined the value of “Big G” – the gravitational constant, effectively weighing the earth. Bryson then moves to modern geology, which began with Hutton circa 1780 and then to the controversial determination of the age of the Earth by Kelvin at the beginning of the last century: Kelvin’s age started out too small to accommodate much of what was known about geology and progressively got smaller as he revised his estimates.

The next chapter discusses the early fossil hunters like Mantel, Cope and Marsh in the 19th century and their rivalries,feuds discoveries, insights and gross errors.

Chapter 7 is chemistry. Beginning with Boyle in 1661, Bryson discusses 17th century alchemy, the “extraordinary and extraordinarily luckless” Scheele, who lost out on credit for every one of the eight elements he discovered – chlorine, fluorine, manganese, barium, molybdenum, tungsten, nitrogen and oxygen. Then, Lavoisier, discoverer of “Conservation of Mass” in Pre-Revolutionary France (Lavoisier didn’t make it in to Post-Revolutionary France, sadly) on through to Mendeleyev and the Periodic Table in the 1870s and finally the discovery of radiation by Becquerel and the work of the Curies and Rutherford.

A New Age Dawns

In this section, dedicated to the revolutions that so drastically altered the physical sciences in the twentieth century, Bryson devotes a chapter to each of Einstein’s Theories of Relativity, Atomic Physics and the Obscure (and male!) Clair Patterson, who calculated the age of the Earth. Further chapters in the section are devoted to Particle Physics, String Theory, Cosmology and Plate Tectonics.

Dangerous Planet

Bryson discusses some of the risks inherent in a planet like ours: Devastating comet impacts and cataclysmic vulcanology. Bryson visits Yellowstone National Park and discusses the giant magma hotspot over which it sits – a hotspot that has exploded in the past with such ferocity that it formed a crater that encompasses the entire park and covered much of the continent with a layer of ash up to 3 meters deep! A hotspot that could potentially erupt again with perhaps no warning whatsoever!

Life Itself

In this section, Bryson heads back towards the beginning again – all the way to the beginning of life. He starts by discussing the narrow range of hospitable environments on earth and the factors that are felt to contribute to the development of life here, rather than Venus or the Moon, say. Bryson then discusses the weather and the oceans and then the rise of life. Microbes receive an entire chapter, as does the Cambrian Explosion (a rapid burst of new life forms at the beginning of the Cambrian era) and Extinction Events. The book spends a further chapter marveling at the vast diversity of life and another at the complexity of cells, before turning to Darwin, evolution, genes and DNA.

The Road to Us

“We” are the stars (and villains) of the rest of the book – We (or at least our forefathers) are “The Mysterious Biped”, “The Restless Ape” and responsible for innumerable extinctions and deaths

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