Saturday, October 23, 2010


A review of Bill Bryson's *A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003)

(5 of 5)

Bill Bryson is full of wit and humor in his little book about everything we know and how we know it. Bryson's book tackles how the universe, the sun, and the world formed. It also explores the atoms, human evolution, the nature of water and anything else you could ever want to know. In addition to answering the greater questions he also explains how we know things and the people who helped us figure it all out.

Bryson makes it very clear why he is doing this, science, although something he was always interested in, was presented in the most boring and dull manner possible. As a history buff I must concur. I to have experienced this, not only with science, but also but history and literature. A great deal of professional academics seem to devote their time in making the most fascinating very dull.

“My own starting point, for what it's worth, was an illustrated science book that I had as a classroom text when I was in the fourth or fifth grade. The book was a standard-issue 1950s schoolbook—battered, unloved, grimly hefty—but near the front it had an illustration that just captivated me: a cut-away diagram showing the Earth's interior as it would look if you cut into the planet with a large knife and carefully withdrew a wedge representing about a quarter of its bulk.

Excited, I took the book home that night and opened it before dinner—an action that I expect prompted my mother to feel my forehead and ask if I was alright—and, starting with the first page, I read.

And here's the thing. It wasn't exciting at all. It wasn't actually altogether comprehensible. Above all, it did not answer any of the questions that the illustration stirred up in a normal inquiring mind: How did we end with a Sun in the middle of our planet? And if it is burning away down there, why isn't the rest of the interior melting—or is it? And when the core at last burns itself out, will some of the Earth slump into the void, leaving a giant sink hole on the surface? And how do you know this? How did you figure out?”(p.4-5)

One the most enjoyable aspects of the book is not only the discoveries made, but also the work that went into discovering them and the politics and personnel quirks of the scientists. The science community is also featured in this work with all its bias and foibles. If someone, like myself, saw scientists as being purely logical devoid of silly biases normally associated with religious fanatics and political groups, then reading this book will be an enormous shock. Scientists, it appears, can often have huge egos that become a disservice to the general public.

“With his pipe, genially self-effacing manner and electrified hair, Einstein was too splendid a figure to remain permanently obscure, and in 1919, the war was over, the world suddenly discovered him. Almost at once his theories of relativity developed a reputation for being impossible for an ordinary person to grasp. Matters were not helped, as David Badanis points out in his suburb book E=mc2,when the New York Times decided to do a story and—for reasons that can never fail to excite wonder—sent the paper's golfing correspondent, one Henry Crouch, to conduct the interview.

Crouch was hopelessly out of his depth, and nearly got everything wrong. Among the more lasting errors in his report was the assertion that Einstein had found a publisher daring enough to publish a book that only twelve men 'in all the world could comprehend.' There was no such book no such publisher, and no such circle of learned men, but the notion stuck anyway. Soon the number of people who could grasp relativity had been reduced even further in the popular imagination—and the scientific establishment, it must be said, did little to disturb the myth.

When a journalist asked the British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington if it was true he was one of only three people in the world who could understand Einstein's relativity theories, Eddington considered deeply for a moment and replied: 'I am trying to think who the third person is.' In fact, the problem with relativity wasn't that it involved a lot of differential equations, Lorentz transformations, and other complicated mathematics (though it did—even Einstein needed help with some of it), but that it was just so thoroughly nonintuitive.” p.124


I highly recommend this fun, entertaining and enlightening book to anyone. It will show why Pluto was not a planet— and the fact that we thought it was is rather ridiculous— why leaded gas was so horrible, and why water is so weird. In this book you will find that great scientific minds not only come from universities but also from the janitor's closet and a patent office.

{Video was posted on Youtube by Sonnett7}

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