Sunday, May 17, 2009

Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. New York: Broadway Books. 2003. 560 pages.

To me, the sciences are fascinating but elusive. The concepts are marvelous and compelling, but the details are difficult and tedious, especially if your grasp of mathematics is as tenuous as mine. I grew up with a love for what I knew of astronomy and the underlying physics, and an interest in such things as geology, paleontology, and meteorology. These subjects are taught badly, if taught at all, and I never understood them well enough for my curiosity to deepen into understanding.

That's where The Short History of Nearly Everything comes in. Bill Bryson explains much of what we know and how we came to know it through an abundance of examples and similes, not through formulas and theories. Not surprisingly, he's at his weakest in the most difficult areas. He tries to explain particle physics but is forced to fall back, fairly enough, on, "The fact is, there is a great deal, even at quite a fundamental level, that we don't know . . . The upshot of all this is that we live in a universe whose age we can't quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances we don't altogether know, filled with matter we can't identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don't truly understand." When it comes to string theory, he throws up his hands helplessly, which is understandable since most physicists seem to find it nearly impossible to articulate. Bryson is on firmer ground with Einstein's theories, which make more sense to me now—gravity is not a force, per se, but "a product of the bending of spacetime . . . no longer so much a thing as an outcome." Even here, though, he admits, "Our brains can take us only so far because it is nearly impossible to envision a dimension comprising three parts space to one part time, all interwoven like the threads in a plaid fabric."

Where Bryson shines brightest is on terra firma, geology and the earth as well as ocean sciences. As Bryson shows in numerous cases, once upon a time, science wasn't just for scientists. Charles Smithson of The French Lieutenant's Woman was not just a figment of author John Fowles' imagination, but representative of a Victorian spirit of scientific interest and discovery. Even Einstein, at the time he published his special theory of relativity, had attended only a four-year course "designed to churn out high school science teachers" and was working in the Swiss patent office—not exactly the type of credentials associated with today's Nobel Prize winners. The 1800s were an especially fruitful time for dedicated amateurs represented in literature by characters such as Smithson and Roger Hamley of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters. There was Roderick Murchison, who "became with rather astonishing swiftness a titan of geological thinking," or fossil collector and seller Mary Anning, who was the first to discover a plesiosaurus (not, as Bryson puts it, to "find the first plesiosaurus") and who "could extract [fossils] with the greatest delicacy and without damage." Lest we think the entrepreneurial spirit of science dead, however, Bryson introduces Reverend Robert Evans, who, from his home in Australia, had as of early 2003 discovered 36 supernovae. To help the reader comprehend the magnitude of this feat, Bryson provides ample context.

Science is often focused on the numbers, but it's difficult for the human mind to grasp the very large and the very small that are well outside our physical perception. If my teachers had used comparisons and analogies like Bryson's and his sources, I and my classmates might have understood the significance of all those swirling numbers and formulae. For example, most of us have seen the typical solar system chart neatly tucked into a textbook or displayed on a poster. But the planets don't come one after the other at "neighborly intervals." If Earth were the diameter of a pea, "Jupiter would be over a thousand feet away and Pluto would be a mile and a half distant (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn't be able to see it anyway"). Bryson adds that the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, would be nearly 10,000 miles away at this scale. It's easier to appreciate the size and wonder of the universe when presented in a tangible way rather than as a bunch of 10s with superscripts.

Bryson covers a lot of territory—astronomy, earth science, oceanography, physics, chemistry, biology, evolution, origins of man, and even the microbes that keep us healthy and make us miserable. Earth and its life depend on delicately balanced systems and processes, with the potential for natural or man-made disaster ever present. The chapter on the Yellowstone supervolcano ("Dangerous Beauty") would keep any nervous soul up a few nights, while humbling chapters like "Lonely Planet" reveal how much of what we rely on is beyond our control—the molten nature of Earth's interior, our moon that is just the right size and orbit to keep our planet stabilized, the position of the Earth relative to the sun (five percent closer or 15 percent farther, and we would cease to exist as we know ourselves). Bryson reminds us that we are a hair's breadth from unpredictable and/or unpreventable disaster, whether from space or from within our own home.

As we live day to day, going to work, shopping, eating, sleeping, spending time with friends, even vacationing with the family at Yellowstone, it's easy to forget that we're part of more than a neighborhood, a city, or even a country. We're also part of the complex systems that sustain us, our planet Earth, and the universe around us. If you have, A Short HIstory of Nearly Everything may help you to recall the wonder and the fragility of it all.

Sunday, 17 May 2009.
Copyright © 2009 by Diane L. Schirf.

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