07 March 2006

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

March 07 2006 (05:38:00) ( 0 views )

I am not typically a reader of non-fiction. In fact, I think I could probably count all the non-fiction books I have really read on my fingers. (This doesn't include textbooks -- that's not reading in the sense I use it here. That's work.) I actually wonder if I'd need both hands.

But in this case, I read every word, every page. I looked at every picture. I read the introduction, looked through the notes, the illustration credits, and even scanned the index. This is a fascinating book.

I've never read anything else by Bill Bryson, and to flaunt my ignorance, I'd never heard of him. My brother-in-law Mike gave us this book for Christmas. And it's a handsome gift. It's a real doorstop of a book, with a hard cover and glossy paper, measuring 8 x 10 inches and 624 pages. It has 595 beautiful illustrations, including photographs, drawings and paintings. But nothing is as important as the fact that this book held my interest as tightly as any page-turner I've ever cracked. I'm just not used to that with non-fiction.

So what is the subject matter of A Short History of Nearly Everything? Well, nearly everything. It is divided into six sections. They are:

  1. Lost in the Cosmos. This is nothing less than an exposition of current theory and knowledge of the formation, composition, size, and state of the Universe in which we live. Among many other things, Bryson discusses our Solar System, the discovery of Pluto, and theories about asteroids.

  2. The Size of the Earth. Who knew that in 1735 "...people had lately become infected with a powerful desire to understand the Earth ..." to the extent that a party of "scientists and adventurers" from France travelled to Peru with the idea of triangulating distances in the Andes with the ultimate goal of calculating the size of the Earth?

  3. A New Age Dawns. The age of Einstein, Planck, Hubble, Neils Bohr. A time when "a graduate student ... named Clair Patterson ... using ... lead isotope measurement to try to get a definitive age for the Earth ..." discovered that the soil, air, the very rocks he was testing were unbelievably contaminated with lead -- "two hundred times the levels...expected..." which discovery lead him to understand that this was the result of adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline. Patterson embarked on "a hellish campaign" to expose the truth about this monstrous health hazard. Bryson credits him directly with the introduction of the Clean Air Act of 1970, and "the removal from sale of all leaded petrol in the United States in 1986." This fascinating story is one of many woven into the fabric of this section.

  4. Dangerous Planet. The nature of our globe -- what's inside, and what's on top. What's happening to our continents, what about volcanos? Did you know that Yellowstone Park is a volcano?

  5. Life Itself. Cells, DNA, Darwin. What was the "KT impact?" Dinosaurs roamed the earth much longer than we have to date. What's our life expectancy as a species?

  6. The Road to Us. The mysterious biped. Hominids, the Holocene era. Anthropology, archaeology. In Chapter 29 we read that "about a million and a half years ago some forgotten genius ... took one stone and used it to shape another... it was the world's first piece of advanced technology."

There is no way I can really do this book justice here. It is, after all, about "nearly everything." On the back of the dust jacket appear the usual testimonials from critics. They are all true in this case, but the one I want to excerpt comes from Tim Flannery, Times Literary Supplement:

"...schools would be better places if it were the core science reader on the curriculum."

A Short History of Nearly Everything is filled with stories of quirky scientists, and the often ironic fates they met. It seems almost a natural law of human history (and somewhere Bryson states it as such) that the wrong person will get credit for any major discovery.

The book is stuffed with material from which one may launch hours of heavy thinking and talking. Bryson quotes Ian Tattersall in Chapter 28, "The Mysterious Biped:" "'One of the hardest ideas for humans to accept ... is that we are not the culmination of anything. There is nothing inevitable about our being here." There is much about the origin of the human race -- what is known and what is not known. And there is little to make one confident that we are here for very long.

Bryson has accomplished what is, in my mind, a very unusual feat here. This book is not chatty or condescending, it is not oversimplified, nor is Bryson less than modest about its capacity to cover the ambitious scope he's undertaken. This is a starting place, but what an accomplishment.

The only other author I've encountered that writes this type of non-fiction is John McPhee, and Bryson cites his work more than once. McPhee has written such books as Basin and Range, which takes on the subject of plate tectonics, and Coming Into the Country, a book about Alaska that I read in the 70s (I think).

We live in a time when much money and work is expended on increasing our knowledge, yet how much of that knowledge ever touches most of us? Writers like Mr. Bryson give us the opportunity to have a look into the huge body of information that humanity has accumulated, and, having seen it, we know that we know very, very little about anything. In his own words, "We enjoy not only the privilege of existence, but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even ... to make it better."

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