Sunday, January 6, 2008

A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson (2003)

What happens when a writer, known so far for travel books and about history, and who tickles the funny bones in your body, decides to write about science. Writing books about science and making them interesting have broken many authors, so when I first picked up this book, I was a bit worried. Well, when I finished the book, I let out a sigh of relief. While imparting a fair amount of education about science (although not about explaining the complicated algebra and geometry), the book does convey a great deal and did so in a very entertaining way.
Of course, if you are a scientist, you would take away almost nothing from this book, since it hardly claims to propound a new version of the string theory; one thing anyone can learn from such a book is how to write books like this that will explain a large number of concepts while keeping the overall subject light; and at the same time, making things more life-like by explaining details about the scientists that hardly ever makes it out.

A Short History of Nearly Everything
Typically when you read about a scientist, you will learn about the great inventions that the scientist did, and how great it was and how beneficial it was. Typically such inventors are treated in a very god-like manner, and way above reality. Bill Bryson explains a lot more about such scientists, including their failing and weaknesses, and make them seem more life-like.
You will get to feel about what the situation and surrounding environment was like for such great scientists such as Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and many others. And this is exactly the reason why this massive 500 page plus book was written. Like all of us, Bill Bryson learnt all the facts about science, but again like us, in a very dull manner. He wanted to understand the reasons as to why something was discovered, the motivation of the scientists, the environment around them, and so on; all these help in understanding the development of science in a much more understandable way. This works great - you learn as to how Newton was also an egoist and also responsible for sending many counterfeiters to the gallows in an official role; or how the great Cavendish was such a recluse that he would even communicate with his housekeeper through letters.
In addition to the part about scientists, you also learn about sizes in this universe, from the size of our planet to the size of galaxies, about the development of Homo Sapiens (us) and what separates us from our biological cousins (the chimpanzees) to whom we are more than 98% genetically similar. You learn a lot about such varied subjects such as fields of cosmology, astronomy, paleontology, geology, chemistry, physics and so on.
For writing this book, Bryson spent over 3 years, talking to various scientists and understanding things from them; as a result of his not being a scientist himself, there have been errors that have been pointed out in the book; but overall, I stick to my thought that this was a wonderful book that tried to explain how scientists and science learn about everything (and something that you never read about).

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