Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

"Bill Bryson is one of the world’s most beloved and bestselling writers. In A Short History of Nearly Everything, he takes his ultimate journey–into the most intriguing and consequential questions that science seeks to answer. It’s a dazzling quest, the intellectual odyssey of a lifetime, as this insatiably curious writer attempts to understand everything that has transpired from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization. Or, as the author puts it, “…how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since.” This is, in short, a tall order.
To that end, Bill Bryson apprenticed himself to a host of the world’s most profound scientific minds, living and dead. His challenge is to take subjects like geology, chemistry, paleontology, astronomy, and particle physics and see if there isn’t some way to render them comprehensible to people, like himself, made bored (or scared) stiff of science by school. His interest is not simply to discover what we know but to find out how we know it. How do we know what is in the center of the earth, thousands of miles beneath the surface? How can we know the extent and the composition of the universe, or what a black hole is? How can we know where the continents were 600 million years ago? How did anyone ever figure these things out?
On his travels through space and time, Bill Bryson encounters a splendid gallery of the most fascinating, eccentric, competitive, and foolish personalities ever to ask a hard question. In their company, he undertakes a sometimes profound, sometimes funny, and always supremely clear and entertaining adventure in the realms of human knowledge, as only this superb writer can render it. Science has never been more involving, and the world we inhabit has never been fuller of wonder and delight."

I cannot quite convey how good this book is. Yes, it's around 500 pages, and it's information-dense, but the information is presented in an incredibly interesting and entertaining manner. It's matter-of-fact but maintains a huge amount of dry humor and good storytelling. It got me quietly giggling to myself in public a couple times, which I'm afraid to say earned some strange glances. Yes, it takes a bit of time to read because there's just so much to take in, but it's definitely not boring. Above all, just the process of learning the basics of geology and the beginning of the universe and the earth and atoms and so much more (and all the little fascinating stories that go along with them) feels awesome. I got a lot of perspective from reading it, seeing it all outlined in terms of eons and evolution and light-years. It's like a high-speed, high-interest, all-inclusive course for anyone who's ever been curious about astronomy/biology/physics/geology/science in general. The book very well lives up to its name. And like I mentioned earlier, the anecdotes are occasionally the highlight of the book, like the geologist with a penchant for doing fieldwork naked, or the painfully shy Henry Cavendish, who once fled from an admiring house-caller and had to be coaxed back into his house hours later. There's some lively stuff in the book, I'm telling you. If you like learning, if you have any ounce of curiosity in you, I think you'll like it. I certainly did, and I'm giving it five stars. I can't recommend this book highly enough. There's a copy at Kettleson and Mt. Edgecumbe.

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