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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Bill Bryson journeys through science

A Short History of Nearly Everything
Bill Bryson
Black Swan paperback, 687 pages

This is one of the best books of scientific popularisation I have ever read. Bryson brings the skills of a hugely successful and confident travel writer to bear on the Entire History of Science, no less, and does so in a way that chalks up another huge success for him.

Being an established writer of best sellers, Bryson was confident enough of his own ability, and of the support of his publisher, to be able to spend some serious time getting to grips with his mighty subject, knowing that whatever he finally came up with would be read. Yet, he also brings to it the humility of the seasoned travel writer, who knows that he cannot possibly say everything about Science, any more than he could have said everything about America or Europe or Australia, and who concentrates instead of saying as much as he can, as entertainingly and engagingly as possible.

Tone of voice is a lot of the reason Bryson’s books are so successful. His politics are vaguely leftish to middle of the road (like those of most of his readers, in other words), and his number one aim is not to change the world, simply to explore it and to describe what he has found. He doesn’t badger you every other page with what he thinks you ought to do about it all. Nor does he have big personal scientific axes to grind. He does have his own opinions about various things, but these are secondary to his principle aim which is to learn, and to continue to make an honest living by passing on what he has learned. Reading Bryson makes you realise just how partisan, politically and scientifically, much scientific popularisation tends to be. Many scientific popularisers have their own particular obsessions and agendas, and there is nothing wrong with that. But Bryson is just wandering about trying to make as much sense of it all as he can, and to keep us entertained and attentive while he does that. He gives you a glimpse of just about everything, and yet somehow manages not to be either superficial, or too detailed and consequently dull. This book is a page turner. You keep wanting to know what will come next.

How does he contrive this? The plan of the book is clever, and different from your usual History of Everything Scientific. He does not tell the story of science in chronological order by time of discovery. Rather does he tell the story of the universe, and of our little planet and of our various ancestors on it, in the chronological order that all that happened. He starts with the Big Bang, moves on from gallaxies and stars and planets generally, and so on to the Solar System in particular. Then he homes in on the early history of Earth, then writes about the origins of life on Earth, then follows life as it evolves, from miniscule and vastly numerous bugs (and the damage they can do to us, still), and onwards to bigger and less numerous beings. The dinosaurs arise, but are destroyed by a giant fireball. Life then becomes mammalian, eventually coming up with monkeys and apes, and then in due course … us. He attaches to this central blow by blow account of everything his informative and amusing descriptions of the various discussions and arguments by and between the scientists, as and when they all made their various contributions to the discovering and refining of this big story. Big Bang science is recent, but he of course starts with that. Recent arguments about how life might have got started come before Darwin’s thoughts about how it later evolved, and so on. This works really well, far better than plodding through the biographies of scientists in order of birth, and jumping crazily from this phenomenon to that and back again, as their attention, individual and collective, hurtled hither and thither. Bryson jumps about from this modern scientist to that more ancient one, but his narrative spine remains strong. He has chosen, that is to say, a truly excellent route through his territory. Once again, his travel writing background serves him well.

Apart form it just being such a fun read, one of the great virtues of this books is the way that, because he is dealing, however rapidly, with everything scientific, Bryson connects, because he can, arguments that you do not usually see joined up – in the way they were joined up when they happened. For instance, the age of the universe and the age of the earth looms very large in this book, just as these things did when they were first being argued about. After all, the age of the earth cannot be greater than the age of the sun, or worse, of the entire universe. And if the universe is not old enough to allow evolution to unfold in the stately way we now believe to be the case, then that is a problem, and all part of why people might choose not to believe in it, and of why some people did choose not to believe in it. It was not just modern enlightenment versus Bible bashing. If evolution happened, then time had somehow to be made for it to happen in.

Another way in which this book is unusual is that, not being a scientist himself, Bryson feels free to point out huge areas of ignorance. Two stand out in my recollections. First: the sea, still very little explored and full of many future surprises and dramas, he says. And second: the sheer number of species that there used once to be, and that there are now. This makes a refreshing change from the announcements we regularly here nowadays concerning how this suspciously exact number of species is being wiped out per year, by human wickedness. We just don’t know, he says.

Scientist, no matter how grand their discoveries, are only human, and Bryson revels in their foibles as well as their achievements. I enjoyed this book so much that I didn’t wait to finish it before having things to say about it.

Here is my first reaction to it, in which I already note the value of Bryson’s background as a travel writer. That first posting, on my Culture Blog, includes big quotes from early in the book, about Max Planck (extremely unlucky apparently) and about “the most brilliant person most people have never heard of”, a man called Gibbs. And then I went on to post further big bits as I made my way further through the book, with very little comment form me at all, about the education of fixed speed of light man Albert Michelson, about John Dalton, who first made the kind of sense we now still make of atoms, about the man who first classified clouds, and about the man who first suggested ice ages. Click and wallow at will.

But now for a fly in the Bryson ointment. Commenting on the first of these postings, Samizdata’s own Michael Jennings had this to say:

I will confess that I found Bryson’s travel books (and his earlier books on the English language) to be so full of careless factual errors that I gave up reading him in disgust. I haven’t looked at “A Brief History of Nearly Everything” because on his track record I simply assumed it would be a disaster. I might be wrong and perhaps he has got a fact-checker this time.

I have found no errors in any Bryson book, but then I do not know nearly as many things as Michael Jennings does. So, does A Short History of Everything contain as many errors as that comment suggests it might? Has anyone ripped it to bits for being inaccurate? Even if no one has done this, the book might still be full of errors, but the science fraternity could have been so delighted that the great Bryson has paid such elaborate and prolonged attention to their enthusiasm that they have chosen to be silent on this aspect of the book. But I would really like if this book is actually full of mistakes, because then my present opinion, that it is terrific, will then have to be dumped. A few blemishes I could live with, but not “so full of careless factual errors”. That would be tragic.

The book ends on an elegiac note, and deliberately so. Bryson wants us all to understand that this grand narrative business – from Big Bang to Bugs to Us – is something of an illusion, a product of human species parochialism. Life is so chancy! The universe did not exist in order to make us. It just happened to turn out that way, and for now, that is how it is. We now rule the earth. We are now the greatest threat to – and yet also the only hope of – other species beyond counting, and even if we do not know how many other species, it is certainly a great many. But think what happened to those mighty dinosaurs. We could easily be next. Another rock could come swooping in from the asteroid belt and boom, goodnight homo sapiens. (He describes how very quickly and completely it might be all over for us.)

Bryson ruminates on all the species that humans themselves have definitely killed the last specimens of, so thoughtlessly, seemingly unable to divine any difference between a living and breeding population and a dead body in a jar or a drawer in some collection somewhere … until, not before time, the modern fashion (which I entirely agree with) for at least trying to keep interesting and rare animals alive caught hold. (One of the most civilised things to have happened in my lifetime is the way that the camera has now almost entirely replaced the gun among the people who chase after exotic animals. This change of heart has caused all manner of difficulty on the gun front, for if good people do not any more use guns to kill exotic animals, they still need them to scare bad humans into behaving themselves, but are reluctant to make this distinction.)

I can imagine some Samizdata readers not caring for this last chapter. Why not something about space travel? Nanotechnology? Or even something more mundane, concerning the immense contribution that space travel is already making to communications on earth, and to learning about the universe, and about how a little more space travel will thus yield many more such treasures.

Well, he prefers to end with death, to make the point that we could all be next, as indeed we could, and I do not have any problem with that. If you would have preferred speculations about exploring Mars, well, you will have to make do with his earlier points about how very big the Solar System is and how very, very small its participating planets are, and consequently (although he does not discuss this much) how very thankless and long drawn out space exploration is likely to be for the next few decades, or even centuries.

Details. You cannot expect to read a book as big as this about a subject as big as this and agree with every judgement embodied in it. If I have described how you might feel about the way this book ends, I nevertheless urge you not to be put off by this.

So, this book is very successful, and (and because) very entertaining, and is already selling by the ton. My only worry is: is it as factually correct as I want it to be? Comments please, about that matter in particular.

5 comments to Bill Bryson journeys through science

  • Jake

    He brings humor into his book by describing the lives of the scientists. Many of these scientists were very weird and so their lives are entertaining to read.

  • bbridges

    I listened to the audio version of this last year during train and car trips and have been singing its praises since. Fascinating.

  • Greg

    Very nice review, thanks. I too really loved this book. I have a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology and teach first year labs at a major university and I am writing on the subject you raised about factual errors. I don’t know if they are found throughout the book, but I did find a few glaring ones on the subject of my expertise, the chapter on Charles Darwin.

    They aren’t enough to make me enjoy the book any less, but they do make me a little sceptical about the facts in other parts of the book.

    In writing on Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, Bryson writes that the ship’s captain “liked the shape of his nose” which is the exact opposite of the truth. Darwin was almost *rejected* because captain FitzRoy was fan of phrenology (studying the bumps on the to tell about personality, etc) and *didn’t* like the shape of Darwin’s nose.

    The other minor error was when Bryson said Darwin bunked in the same cabin as captain FitzRoy, when in fact he bunked with two other officers, and FitzRoy was a deck below in the captain’s personal quarters (which was customary).

    I get the feeling Bryson likes a good story, no matter whether it’s true or not.

  • Brian

    Bryson’s Short History is good, but there are errors. My friends have pointed out a few which I did now know about, but I will write about one in particular which I have lots of experience in.

    Glass is NOT fluid. Medieval cathedrals have their windows thicker on the bottom than on the top because the makers of the windows were not stupid and realized that to make the windows stable, the thicker part should not go at the top of the window. It would take millions of years for any sort of distinguishable flow to be noticed in glass. It’s simply impossible to find any glass that flows because glass and humans have not been around long enough. For all purposes, glass is a “solid-like liquid” that will not flow at all.

  • Scott

    I enjoyed your review and found it very informative, thanks. In response to the question on how prevalent factual errors are in this book, I can only commment on one that I noticed. I am not a scientist, but as I have a casual interest in astronomy, this one stood out: “…Betelgeuse is fifty thousand light years away” (last paragraph, page 36, 2004 paperback edition). That is not even close, as estimates are closer to around 500 light years (give or take a hundred light years). This seemed to me a significant error, particularly in the context of which he is writing, which is concerning the possible devastating effects of a supernova explosion to life on Earth.