Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Short History of Nearly Everything: Bill Bryson

There are just a few books on general science that succeed in educating the reader without leaving him bored. The two such classic books that immediately leap to mind are “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking and “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan. I am glad to add another book to this list.

A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson is much more ambitious in its scope. Whereas Hawking and Sagan limited themselves to mainly astronomy and astrophysics, Bryson’s book covers a wide range of science: Anatomy, Taxonomy, Astronomy, Genetics, Biology, History, Geology, Physics, Oceanography.... just to name a few.

Bryson begins with the origin and structure of cosmos before delving into the atom and its nucleus. Then we learn about the planet earth, its geology, the richness of flora and fauna of its vast oceans, before moving on to the origin and evolution of life. We conclude the journey with the advent of Homo sapiens.

From quarks to quasars, protons to pulsars, it is a pretty huge terrain to cover within 600-odd pages and what makes it even more a commendable feat is the way author goes about it. For one thing, language is lucid, with a dash of humour in almost every paragraph, albeit in an understated way, a la PG Wodehouse.
Furthermore, rather than using incomprehensible jargon and scientific notation, the author almost always lays down the fact in a way that a layman can come to terms with.
For example, when reading about the Avogadro's Number, we get to know the following:

"The Avogadro's Number is a basic unit of measure in Chemistry. It is the number of molecules found in 2.016 grams of Hydrogen gas (or an equal volume of any other gas). Its value is placed at 6.0221367 x 10^23, which is an enormously huge number. Chemistry students have long amused themselves by computing just how large this number is, so I can report that it is equivalent to the number of popcorn kernels needed to cover the United States to a depth of nine miles, or cupfuls of water in Pacific Ocean or number of soft-drink cans that would, when evenly stacked, cover the earth to a depth of two hundred miles. An equivalent number of American pennies would be enough to make every person on Earth a dollar trillionaire. It is a big number."

And speaking of the DNA:
"If all of your DNA were woven into a single fine strand, there would be enough of it to stretch from Earth to Moon and back, not once or twice, but again and again. Altogether, it is estimated that you may have as much as 20 billion kilometers of DNA bundled up inside you."

The pages are full of interesting nuggets of information about people and places, some of which leave you excited and wonderstruck, some leave you aghast, and there are many that leave you simply amused and chuckling to yourself. You meet eccentric scientists and discoverers and read about accidental discoveries and some near-successes.

The last chapter discusses the importance of life and the irreversible damage that we humans are causing to earth and the life on it. It’s a moving plea, one that should make even the stoniest of hearts to skip a beat.

It’s a monumental book, one that leaves us in awe of nature and its myriad secrets… something that textbooks often fail to do. In fact, this is exactly what led the author to write a book that wouldn’t just give tables and equations but make the reader excited. The only drawback is lack of any photos, diagrams... There are none. However, I read that an illustrated version of the book is now available, albeit at a higher price.

Do read this book. For an inquisitive and curious mind, nothing would be a better gift.

1 comment:

bilder freistellen said...

Thanks for sharing the idea there would be some apprehensions from segment but i am up for it.