Bill Bryson is a talented and entertaining writer; he has written more than one book that I enjoyed quite a lot. When I opened up A Short History of Nearly Everything and read the opening paragraphs, I told myself that I was in for a treat. Bryson, it seems, had throughout his life stumbled on questions about why things were the way they were and how we came to understand them. Finally, after one such episode, he set out to find answers to those questions and report back to us what he discovered.
The title is misleading; the book is much more a history of how we came to understand the world, rather than a history of the world itself. It would be better named A Short History of Science. Even that would be a little off, however, as it quickly becomes apparent that what fascinates Bryson isn’t so much the science as it is the scientists. A Short History is a very interesting book about the personalities behind modern scientific thinking, and about how those people and their disciplines interacted. And, well, as such, it’s not very short. It’s hard to see how it could be, since it covers so many discoveries by so many people, and often discusses the controversies around those discoveries as well, and about how some people got totally screwed by their less-scrupulous peers.
Some of the science history was surprising to me. When I was a kid I learned that the Earth was about 4 billion years old. This number, to me, fit into that bin of “things we’ve always known.” That number has been refined since, but the tweaks have been minor. What I did not know was that when I was a kid, the 4 billion figure was pretty new. As late as the 1920’s, the dominant estimates for the age of the Earth were much, much, less. That is just one example of the tremendous rush of knowledge that occurred in the 20th century. Things that were taken for granted by the time I was in grade school were considered wacky theories (if they were considered at all) by the previous generation. After centuries of muddling around, science in the early 20th century managed to reach a state across multiple disciplines to finally allow mankind to lay a solid theoretical foundation for just what the heck is going on in the universe. We talk about the rush of technology today, but that was all made possible but the enormous strides in physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, geology, cosmology, and on and on.
There are a few aspects of the march of science that Bryson finds much more interesting than I do. One area where we particularly diverge is the classification of plant and animal species. Bryson explores at great length the competing systems and the proponents of each. My take on the whole thing: *yawn*. This debate is critically important to a few professionals, and I’m not one of them. About the third time taxonomy came up, I thought, “Let’s get back to Darwin’s social difficulties, please.”
Remember how I said that the first paragraphs had me rubbing my hands in anticipation? Well, there’s another problem. The rather over-the-top style of the introduction got pretty tiresome as the book wore on. Opening a page at random, I came across the phrase “splendid waywardness” to describe the property of ice floating on liquid water. It’s a nice phrase. There are way too many of them. Another annoying trait is the never-ending parade of metaphors to illustrate what a very long time ago things happened. If the first three didn’t get the point home, then then one about flying backwards in time for three weeks to get to the beginning of human life, but twenty years to get to the Cambrian Explosion isn’t going to do the job either.
Despite my complaints, this book is filled with historical tidbits about the lives of people whose names you know and quite a few that perhaps you should learn. It shows how preconceptions and petty jealousy have dogged the advancement of human knowledge, and the book often instills a sense of wonder in it all. It is a flawed read, but there’s really nothing else like it that I know of. As such, I recommend A Rather Long History of Scientific Thought.
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