Monday, 15 August 2016

Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything - Bill Bryson

Hi dudes! I finished A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson recently as part of my goal to read 15 popular science books between August 2016 and July 2017, and I'm delighted to tell you that it's a fantastic book. 

I had just worked my way through A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. I thought the books would be similar, but it turns out that there are significant differences: Hawking's is a lot drier, focuses only on physics and describes things more mathematically. In contrast, Bryson's is an entertaining, rollicking read filled with personal spats between scientists and an easily readable explanation of a huge range of subjects, including space, paleontology, evolution, particle physics, microbiology, anthropology and more. 

He manages to provide an overview of everything from 1000 ft up, every so often deftly swooping down to examine a particularly scintillating person or discovery or feud in detail, seamlessly keeping all of the threads together and everything in context. It's quite amazing, really.

It's quite a difficult book to review, because it just covers so much, but suffice to say that it was brilliant, funny and informative, and then leave you with my favourite sections and quotes. My only complaints were some errors (mostly getting the sizes of things wrong) and his avoidance (for the most part) of scientific notation, e.g. saying "one-quarter of one percent". 

Best Bits!

Talking about fuzzy TV and parts of that fuzz coming from the cosmic microwave background:

The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe

Something shocking:

Neptune is five times further from Jupiter than Jupiter is from us and Pluto is barely 1/50000th of the way through the solar system

The existence of the Oort Cloud is, according to Bryson, "entirely hypothetical". I just looked this up and it's apparently true - yet I've believed for years in it!

The North Star might have burned out anytime in the last 680 years and we wouldn't know.

This hilarious anecdote about Isaac Newton:

As a student, frustrated by the limitations of conventional mathematics, he invented an entirely new form, the calculus, but then told no one about it for twenty-seven years. In like manner, he did work in optics that transformed our understanding of light and laid the foundation for the science of spectroscopy, and again chose not to share the results for three decades

Bryson reports that Darwin once decreed that the number of worms in an average acre of English country soil is "53,767" which is hilariously precise.

On the Laws of Thermodynamics:

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.

Bryson made Rutherford sound like a very funny person, and I loved this:

All science is either physics or stamp collecting

Not to insult the biologists of the world, but it's a pretty apt quote if you define physics as "understanding the universe".

These excerpts are wonderful:

"Physically he was big and booming, with a voice that made the timid shrink. Once when told that Rutherford was about to make a radio broadcast across the Atlantic, a colleague drily asked: “Why use radio?”"

"At almost the same time the German physicist Werner Heisenberg came up with a competing theory called matrix mechanics. This was so mathematically complex that hardly anyone really understood it, including Heisenberg himself (“I do not even know what a matrix is ,” Heisenberg despaired to a friend at one point)"

"This expressly decreed that nothing could outrace the speed of light and yet here were physicists insisting that, somehow, at the subatomic level, information could. (No one, incidentally, has ever explained how the particles achieve this feat. Scientists have dealt with this problem, according to the physicist Yakir Aharanov, “by not thinking about it.”)"

"Young man,” Enrico Fermi replied when a student asked him the name of a particular particle, “if I could remember the names of these particles, I would have been a botanist"

I'm a big fan of the wit in "amino acids (which I am obliged by long tradition to refer to here as “the building blocks of life”)" and puzzled by "Proteins can’t exist without DNA, and DNA has no purpose without proteins. Are we to assume then that they arose simultaneously with the purpose of supporting each other? If so: wow."

James Watson's attitude to discovering the structure of DNA was very funny: 

As Watson cheerfully (if a touch disingenuously) remarked in his autobiographical book The Double Helix, "It was my hope that the gene might be solved without my learning any chemistry".

Something I cringed at, but also a testament to the power of today's computers - a dude called Milankovitch "had to work out the angle and duration of incoming solar radiation at every latitude on Earth, in every season, for a million years, adjusted for three ever-changing variables" for his theory of glaciation. He worked on this for twenty years, but it was "work that now could be completed in a day or two with a computer." Sucks to have worked in the 1920s, I guess! Then again, Physics was very exciting at that point...

Darwin wrote an exhaustive tome on barnacles, and afterwards remarked:

"I hate a barnacle as no man ever did before."

Exactly my feelings after studying 1000 pinecones for a Young Scientist project!

I would say my favourite section of the book was the bit on bacteria/viruses/disease, but honestly, apart from the few numerical mistakes littering its 544 pages, it was almost all excellent. Highly recommended. 

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