Monday, October 02, 2006

A Short History of Nearly Everything (Bill Bryson)

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. . . "
Next book up: Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky


Anonymous said...

I'll volunteer for the Bryson-should-write-all-textbooks committee. This was the most enjoyable non-fiction book I've ever read ... or, in my case, listened to. Twice. End to end, unabridged. I thought the Yellowstone super-volcano factoids were fascinating, e.g. finding a layer of ash 9 feet thick in NEBRASKA from the last big blow; the Earth cooled for something like 20,000 years because of the ash. And that thing about putting a live sponge (not the pink petroleum product one in your sink) through a seive into a solution and it will reassemble itself. Cool.

Ok, that's it: I'm gonna go listen again. (By the way, Bryson has a great voice and he narrates the book.)

Other books: his travel guide to Australia, "Down Under", is hilarious and the account of his out-of-shape attempt to hike the A.T. is not bad.

Anonymous said...

...oops, he narrates all except "A Short History..." but the narration is still first rate.