A short history of nearly everything

There are three stages of scientific discovery: first people deny that it’s true, then they deny that it’s important, finally, they credit the wrong person.

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That’s how the saying goes, right? Well, I rarely do this with books – but a couple of years ago I tried A short history of nearly everything and gave up about less than 1/3 into it. Now I started over – and this time, got all the way through. I guess I’m describing it like a chore – but it’s really not. For a highschooler, it might seem redundant (parts of it, at least) but seeing as how I’ve managed to forget most of what I ever knew of science in the many years since I’ve finished highschool, I can’t say I felt that. The best thing about it is that it puts science in a historical and comparative context – something that school almost never does. Not in my experience, at least. It’s not a dry lesson in geology, paleontology, astronomy, physics, chemistry or anthropology – but more the story of how various achievements in these domains came to be, how they connected and, more shockingly, how unbelievably disconnected they sometimes were. And, as a bonus, if you manage to remember at least half of all the discoveries and people this book goes through, you’d make for a redoubtable adversary in a bar quiz 🙂 The quote at the beginning of this post (by Alexander von Humboldt) is actually a very good summary of many anecdotes in the book – the science medium is very much a dog eat dog kind of environment. What I dislike about Mr. Bryson’s approach (a very well researched one, by the way, if the 20-page bibliography is anything to go by – but not without its faults apparently) is how often he treats his readers like idiots. For example: the universe is big, the atom is small – these 2 points are made through tens of metaphors and comparisons and drilled into your head like you are the kid at the back of the class eating copious amounts of paste. And I’m guessing that kid wouldn’t pick up this book, so why the constant patronizing?

Aside from that, it’s a little unnerving to be reminded that we live in a universe whose age we can’t quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances from us and each other we don’t altogether know, filed with matter we can’t identify, operating in conformance with physical laws we don’t truly understand. And that’s just the universe at large – but the chapter warningly entitled Dangerous Planet is a lot like rehashing all disaster movie plots – this time with scientific evidence of why any of them can happen at any time: meteorites randomly hitting the Earth or volcanoes erupting and changing the whole climate. And Yellowstone, sitting on a supervolcano? I had no idea. I mean, we could be going the way of dinosaurs any day now 😀 And I have to say, all of a sudden, the fear of volcanoes I had when I was 7 doesn’t seem as silly now.

But all pointless panic aside, the world really is a wondrous place and Mr. Bryson makes the case for that very well.

I’ll leave you with a bit of trivia: did you guys know that the frequency with which a man thinks about sex affects his beard growth? Some people read crap like this on the internet, when they’re bored at work, I had to read a book to find out 🙂

~ by ameer on June 24, 2012.

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