Thursday, April 03, 2008

Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
9/10 because I love history and science and Bill Bryson and this has all of that

One of my favorite books during my childhood was Isaac Asimov's "The Universe," a non-fiction* exploration of how we have looked at the universe from historical times to the present day. It's where I learned about the Cepheid yardstick being wrong, about the redshift discovery of the universe's expansion, and about the steady-state vs. Big Bang controversy. Along comes Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything," a sort of updated and expanded "The Universe," focusing more on Earth than on everything else. Asimov, for instance, spent no time on the evolution of man or the history of Earth except insofar as it related to our understanding of the age of the universe.

* It's interesting, I think, that when we want to say a book is based on fact, we have to specify that it's "non-fiction." I was trying to think of another adjective and could only come up with "fact-based" or "factual," neither of which sounded right. We just assume a "book" is fiction unless told otherwise.

Bryson's "History" (technically, that is the subtitle, footnoted to a picture of the Earth, but I'm too lazy to find a picture of the Earth to put everywhere I want to show the title), conversely, does cover the establishment of our view of the universe, but only to show how we view our place in it. Fully half the book is devoted, lovingly, to the history of the Earth itself and the development of life thereon.

The strength of Bryson's work has always been his stories about people, and in this book, he humanizes the science by focusing on the scientists. He tells us that one of the scientists really responsible for the discovery of the structure of DNA (who was never recognized with the Nobel that Watson and Crick received) was a scientist who jealously guarded her findings because, as a woman, her male colleagues never stopped trying to take advantage of her. We learn about the great international project to map the transit of Venus in 1761, for which scientists were dispatched around the world, including one tragic Frenchman who missed not only the 1761 transit, but the subsequent one in 1769, and whose story just goes downhill from there.

Every chapter is full of these stories, balancing the enormity of the discoveries with the humanity of the discoverers. From Aristotle's greatest insight to Einstein's greatest mistake, from cyanobacteria to antibiotics, Bryson shows us not only the history of our humble home, but our place in it, concluding with a moving chapter on our responsibility to our fellow inhabitants.

Not as consistently entertaining as Bryson's other non-fiction work, but just as engaging and more informative, "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is a great read and a great story, and best of all, we're all characters in it.*

* Not really.

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