Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Little Learning Is A Scary Thing

A friend who suggested I read A Walk In The Woods just suggested I check out another Bill Bryson book, A Short History Of Nearly Everything.  In about 500 pages the author attempts to explain for the average reader the science behind the Earth, the solar system and the universe, that's all.  I should add Bryson must be pretty popular, since the book cover (seen at Amazon) prominently features his name whereas you can barely make out the title.

Unless you're already a specialist in certain fields, you'll find it highly informative, or at least clarifying.  Bryson looks at it all--chemistry, astronomy, physics, biology, geology and so on--and how they explain the Big Bang, evolution, plate tectonics, radiation, hurricanes, etc.  And being a journalist who knows how to keep the reader's attention, he includes numerous anecdotes about the many peculiar men (they're almost all men) behind this knowledge.  He's also quite good at analogies, which is a useful, even necessary skill when you're discussing the immensity of the universe, or the infinitesimal size of sub-atomic particles.

As a kid, Bryson says he was excited by the idea of finding the answers to basic questions, but the texts he read were impenetrable.  Thus, this is his attempt to make the story of discovery compelling. (It must be nice to be a bestselling author and know your readers will follow you wherever you go, so long as you make it interesting.)

A Short History Of Nearly Everything is also pretty scary.  It makes you realize how lucky the human race is to still be around.  He examines the threats we face from earthquakes, weather changes, viruses, volcanoes, meteors, etc.  Some of these things will eventually wipe out quite a few of us, maybe all, unless we significantly improve our ability to respond to threats far larger than world wars, or figure out how to live on other planets..  Of course, many of these threats work on a different time scale, so we're probably safe in the short run.  On the other hand, I live in Los Angeles, where a terrible earthquake is overdue (and still won't be as bad as the threat in Seattle, or Tokyo--not to mention the rarer but more serious events out east in America), so these may be famous last words.

Anyway, if you don't mind being a little frightened, you might want to check it out.


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