Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

This book really lives up to its name. Bryson leads us through a vast sea of information about the history of humans, the planet, and the cosmos. It's a million miles wide and an inch deep. For those of us who don't want to go very deep his approach is good, except sometimes we don't even want to go as wide, either. I can't imagine actually reading this book, as opposed to listening to it. The abridged audiobook was already a lot of information; what arcana must the actual print volume contain? But you shouldn't get the idea that I didn't enjoy listening to it; I did enjoy it, but definitely in a mind-wandering kind of way. What, you don't feel like listening too closely to the discussion of quarks? Then think about something else for a while, keeping your ears semi-alert for a change of subject, then tune in again when Bryson moves on to something a little more interesting to you. It's kind of like how you might listen to certain people you know who tend to go on and on about their new car, for example. Not that I know anyone like that.

A subtitle for this book could be "The Adventures of White Men, Usually English, and Mostly Dead Now." Again, it sounds like I think that would be boring, but to Bryson's credit, it wasn't. He did find a few women scientists to remark upon: Marie Curie, fossil hunter Mary Anning, and Rosalind Franklin, who missed sharing the Nobel Prize with Watson and Crick because she died of cancer at age 37, most likely brought on by contact with toxic materials in her lab. I found myself trying to keep track of the women and non-Englishmen, if only to break up the monotony. Of course this isn't Bryson's fault, but a side effect of that whole patriarchal society thing.

In seventh grade I wrote a report about Louis Leakey, and wanted to be an archaeologist when I grew up, but that didn't pan out. This book is good for people like me: non-scientists who are interested in science in a peripheral, non-threatening kind of way. And I did enjoy the book, despite what I've implied here. I know that Bryson took a certain amount of heat from serious scientists about his light approach; some complained that he was oversimplifying, leaving out important counter-arguments, etc. Well maybe, but who cares? Not me.

(Book 39, 2006)


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