Bill Bryson travels through science and natural history

Bill Bryson (2003). A Short History of Nearly Everything. New York, Broadway Books.
Any fan of Bill Bryson (and how can you be anything else after having read all his books) will see that he is, behind all his middle-aged-and-comically-disillusioned image, a closet academic. His books tend to pose as simple-minded reflections on travel and language, but he is betrayed (especially in In a sunburned country and his two books on the English language (Mother Tongue and Made in America) by his precise descriptions of history and natural science, and his careful references.
A Short History of Nearly Everything is the best popular science book I have read so far – and this is a popular book. As a child, I got as a gift a picture book on nuclear physics called Our Friend the Atom, which despite what I later realized was a rather simplistic (it was put together by Disney) in its view of the consequences of atomic energy, had the inestimable quality of making science interesting. Bryson’s latest has the ability to do the same, but to adults – managing to make us fascinated about science and nature without for an instant succumbing to nave “science marches on” clichs.
The book aims to give an overview of natural science, organized in six parts: Lost in the cosmos (about space and how our models of it have developed), The size of the earth (the development of our understanding of the physical aspects of the earth and the solar system); A new age dawns (Einstein, atoms, subatomic particles, quantum theory); Dangerous planet (a delightful diversion into naturalistic paranoia, explaining the many ways in which the Earth is vulnerable – volcanoes, asteroids, and earthquakes, to name a few); Life itself (the main part of the book, explaining life as a system from the atmosphere to the cell and eventually to DNA) and finally The road to us (human evolution – including paleontology, which turns out to be based to a surprising degree on conjecture.)
Throughout everything, Bryson describes not just the various theories, but also the people who developed them, using his trademark powers of one-line characterization (Iowa is “stratigraphically uneventful”, for instance) to show that science, at a certain level, is as much a competition of opinion as a rational search for truth (and boy, does this make it more interesting!)
The references and explanations are, as far as I can tell, impeccable. My only quirk was that I was little surprised to see Bryson subscribe what I thought was an urban myth, the one about how glass is a kind of liquid, as evidenced by the oft-told story about antique window panes being thicker at the bottom. Physics aside, I always thought that the thicker-at-bottom phenomenon, if it indeed is true, could more plausibly be explained by ancient glassmakers not being able to produce flat glass, and window makers consistently putting the thickest side at the bottom (which is what I would have done, anyway). Bryson is also a little bit wide-eyed when it comes to some of the “dangers” of natural disasters such as the possible explosion of the Yellowstone caldera, but I ascribe that more to a fascination with possible dangers than to lack of scientific truth in storytelling. (Nevertheless, anyone can become a bit thoughtful after those chapters – the trouble is, who should you bequeath your possessions to when there is no one left?)
This is a book I would give to any young person wondering about science and any adult who feels that Discovery Channel is becoming a bit repetitive. Highly recommended. Just what is needed to make people interested in science and nature again.

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One thought on “Bill Bryson travels through science and natural history

  1. Eirik

    Thanks for making me want to read Bryson again, Espen! I used to be an avid fan, but lost interest after “Neither here nor there”, which I thought was too much on the grumpy-middle-aged-American side. I’m always looking for science writers I can learn something from (i.e. pinch ideas from), and if Bryson’s book has a new approach it’s well worth my time.
    As for the question of glass flow, Wikipedia (as usual) sums it up neatly: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass#Does_glass_flow?
    Too bad, as the best metaphor for space tracel I ever read was based on this misconception. In Harry Martinsson’s “Aniara” the movement of the ship through space was compared to the rising of a pocket of air in a glass vessel. In other words: slowly! 😉

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