I going to start a personal campaign to have Bill Bryson rewrite all the science textbooks the American public school system makes children read. All of them. And while he's at it, maybe he could also rewrite all the history textbooks, too. Why? He's exciting writer. A great one, too. And he takes topics that have been treated poorly in the past by other writers, or deemed too abstract or too scientific for nongeniuses, and he makes them not only accessible, but interesting, and dare I say, cool.
I highly recommend A Short History of Nearly Everything. I may even start a Bill Bryson fan club. (I realize I've only read this one book of his, but I plan to read many more in the near future. And, I just found out on Powell's website, he's a fellow Iowan!) This book is not small (but when you think about it trying to cover "nearly everything" isn't a very small task), but it didn't feel like a chore to get through at all. It has the right mix of hard science with historial, yet very lively, anecdotes, and explanation. I will admit I had some what I will call wimpy moments---I did not enjoy the chapters on the supervolcanoes and the who-knows-when-they-will-come-at-a-moment's-notice-and-destroy-us-all asteroids/comets. But then again, I don't like scary movies. Overall, it was highly enjoyable, with way too much information to cover it all here. I will, however, share some personal favorite moments:
- The planet Uranus was discovered in 1781. However, the discoverer wanted to call it George. (Luckily he was "overruled.")
- "In 1785, [Dr. James Parkinson] became possibly the only person in history to win a natural history museum in a raffle."
- As mentioned in Strathern's book, the distinction between chemistry and alchemy was a tough one in the beginning. "Into the eighteen century scholars could feel oddly comfortable in both camps---like the German Johann Becher, who produced an unexceptionable work on mineralogy called Physica Subterranea, but who also was certain that, given the right materials, he could make himself invisible."
- "Physicists are notoriously scornful of scientists from other fields. When the wife of the great Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli left him for a chemist, he was staggered with disbelief. 'Had she taken a bullfighter I would have understood,' he remarked in wonder to a friend. 'But a chemist. . . "