Monday, June 22, 2015

Review of – ‘A Brief History of Nearly Everything’

Have you often felt that there are so many things in science that you would like to know? Do you wish that there is a book about such things that is easy to read? ‘A Brief History of Nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson is one such book.
Bill Bryson is an author of many travel books. His travelogues of England, Europe, America are highly readable and entertaining. This is his first book on Science and he writes it with the same intention as travelogues – to introduce a new land and stoke the curiosity of the reader. The reader should get excited enough to start the journey on her own.
Cosmology, Palaeontology, Relativity, Quantum Physics, Geology, Evolution, Genetics, Anthropology – do you think these subjects with scary names are best hidden in fat books kept in rusty cupboards in dusty libraries? Bill Bryson proves you wrong. These subjects can be fun too, if told in an entertaining way. Wrapped in Bryson’s words, the fearsome subjects appear like the lovable tigers in kid’s cartoons.
Bryson gives us the knowledge, but packs it in warmth and mixes with fun. For example, Bryson writes about Palaeontology, which is the study of very old things. But instead of drowning us in big words, he tells us a story of a 11 year old girl, Mary Anning. She found the fossils of a 17 feet monster animal on the sea shores of Dorset in England. She spent the next thirty five years finding hundreds of such fossils. Bryson says ‘She is commonly held as the source of the tongue twister – She sells sea shells on the sea shore.’
To make the concepts attractive, Bryson uses entertaining examples. This is what Bryson says while illustrating Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2:
‘ You may not feel particularly robust, but if you are an average sized adult you will contain within your modest frame no less than 7 x 10^18 Jules of potential energy – enough to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.’ smile emoticon
Bryson unfolds the story of science through the personalities of its lead actors – the scientists. The dazzling tales of discoveries revolve around the people who made them. So the story of Physics is woven around scientists like Newton, Einstein, Rutherford and Bohr; Chemistry is linked to Mendeleyev, Lavoisier, Curie, and Geology to Hutton, Lyell.
And what colourful personalities these scientists are! We learn about the scientist William Buckland, who woke up his wife at midnight to take a footprint of a tortoise in flour paste!
Karl Scheele, a chemist, who discovered eight elements and many commercially important compounds had the strange habit of tasting every chemical that he studied. Not surprisingly, he ultimately died due to his weird culinary habits.
Women became important part of science only in the last few decades. Even in 1930, women were given simple and menial tasks. A woman called Henrietta Leavitt was employed to perform the routine task of observing photographic plates of sky. But she managed to discover the 'standard candles', which made it possible to measure distances between stars.
We learn from Bryson how glamour follows the hard work in science. Niels Bohr, who postponed his honeymoon to write a landmark paper on Quantum Leap of electron, received Nobel Prize for the finding.
For readers like us, it is always easy to like other people like scientists, and once we like them, we start liking their work too. Many a young children reading this book may dream of becoming a scientist, which will not be a bad thing at all.
It is so educating to learn that science is not infallible at all. Scientists make mistakes regularly and like ordinary human beings, struggle to defend them.
Bryson describes how the first Dinosaur bone to be found was ignored and lost. Dr. Wistar, who came in possession of the bone, failed to see its significance. It was put into a storeroom, forgotten and ultimately lost. Had Wistar given it a little more thought, he would have discovered Dinosaur 50 years before anyone else.
Perhaps nothing makes the point better than the efforts to estimate the age of earth. It took more then hundred years to arrive at the right figure and on the way there were many huge mistakes. An eminent scientist like Lord Kelvin was firm that earth is not older than 10 crore years (the actual age is 480 crore years).
But through the mistakes of individuals science continued its search. Science keeps hitting at a problem even when one entire generation of scientists gets stuck. And this is the overwhelming message that we get from the book – the ever advancing march of human knowledge. I am sure anyone who reads this book will start looking at the world through different eyes.