From the Appalachian Trail to the edge of the universe
Travel writer Bill Bryson takes the ultimate journey into the most difficult questions science can answer
There would be many more scientists in America if schools threw out their textbooks and began teaching with Bill Bryson's fabulous new history of modern science, "A Short History of Nearly Everything." In a little over 500 pages, Bryson takes readers on a roller-coaster ride from the big bang to the advent of man, and there is rarely a tedious moment.
From the opening page, Bryson adopts a tone of chummy curiosity; it's a tone that assumes we all share this yen to know how things work and what they're made of. His attitude can be quite catching.
Bryson wisely starts with the cosmos and the big questions: How did the stars get here? Where is here? How long have the planets been around?
Such questions make a fine mental warm-up for this book. Considering the hugeness of our solar system always puts one in a contemplative mood, and in the following chapters, Bryson takes advantage of this mood. He coaxes us into realms of science that have always seemed, well, a little dry - like geology. He doesn't bog us down with detail once he gets there, though. He builds his story not around knowledge but around the people who worked so hard to establish it.
Each chapter of "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is filled with five or six minibiographies. Some feature well-known scientists, to whose stories Bryson always lends a new tweak. For example, Mason & Dixon are famous in this book not for dividing the North and South but for taking one of the century's most accurate measures of a degree of meridian.
Again and again, Bryson dazzles with such tales about the arbitrariness of scientific fame. The real gems in this book often concern folks most Americans have never heard of, such as Benjamin Thompson, who was born in Woburn, Mass., but fled to Europe where he became Count von Rumford following some work for the Bavarian military. His tertiary discoveries included thermal underwear and the drip coffeemaker.
Zigzagging toward the modern day, Bryson hits all of the biggest eureka moments in the past five centuries, from Newton's laws of motion to the invention of the periodic table and the discovery of quantum physics. Many of the concepts Bryson summarizes here are so complex they have their own discipline of science, but Bryson always manages to make each new theory seem self- evident.
His breakdown of the Laws of Thermodynamics runs as follows: "As Dennis Overbye notes, the three principal laws are sometimes expressed jocularly as (1) you can't win, (2) you can't break even, and (3) you can't get out of the game."
As readers of his previous travel books "In a Sunburned Country" and "A Walk in the Woods" well know, Bryson is always on the lookout for humor, so there are lots of laugh-out-loud moments in this book - often at humanity's expense. In the early 20th century, for example, it was thought that radioactive elements were salubrious, so much so that one hotel in the Finger Lakes region even used radioactive baths to lure customers.
In contrast to what we know today, many of the early scientists depicted here seem masochistic, or just plain stupid. Newton famously stared at the sun for as long as he could just to see how it felt. German scientist Johann Becher was convinced he could make gold out of his own urine. Surprisingly, even such ill-advised endeavors sometimes did some good. For instance, Becher never made gold but he accidentally led to the discovery of phosphorous. Thankfully, today the element comes from a more refined production process.
In fact, it's amazing how many diverse and unusual tasks scientists have dedicated themselves to in their spare time. This book is full of taxonomists and meteorologists, people who study nothing but earthquakes, and a whole subculture of others who hunt the night sky for supernovas, attempting to beat mathematically programmed machines with low-powered telescopes. One man has dedicated his life to the classification of clouds. If this sounds dreamy and serene, think again: Science, Bryson reveals, is cutthroat work.
The fight over who gets credit for such discoveries gives this volume, otherwise a new and improved life-sciences textbook, dramatic flare. Amateurs are forever being thwarted by more ambitious or better-connected scientists; concepts are constantly being rediscovered and renamed, with credit rarely going to the original discoverer.
In that sense, "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is a tributary volume. It tips its hat constantly to the lonely, lost souls who devoted everything to their disciplines, many of them paying the ultimate price in deaths that could earn them an inclusion in "The Darwin Awards." As a result of this gracious delivery, not only has Bryson crafted a volume that illuminates and tells us so very much, he has given us a book that might even turn a few people on to this exciting thing called science.
• John Freeman is a writer in New York.