A duffer's guide to the universe

A Short History of Nearly Everything
July 18, 2003

Bill Bryson: the very mention of the name brings a smile to millions who have wallowed in the charm, humour and perceptiveness of his travel writing. What, one wonders, will they make of his new book, which is not the usual travelogue-lite, but which attempts nothing less than a comprehensive overview of modern science? His enormous following is sure to mean that readers all over the world will find themselves whiling away the summer months wrestling with the arcana of particle physics and pondering the argumentativeness of palaeo-anthropologists.

Bryson, a self-proclaimed "science duffer" at school, was brave to take on this project. The result demonstrates that he did so not just to make money, but also to educate himself by reading widely in the literature of popular science and talking to dozens of leading scientists. The result resembles a compendium of the greatest hits from the anecdotes in recent science books, narrated in the Brysonian manner.

No one could reasonably accuse of him of plagiarism, however. He is scrupulous in citing his sources and endearingly generous in praise of his favourite authors, including David Bodanis, Richard Fortey and Timothy Ferris. Sometimes he overdoes this. It becomes a little tiresome to read so many references to all the folk who fed Bryson his raw material. I also found it a little discomforting to hear the origins of some of his facts (for example, "according to a report in The Economist ...").

One of the most impressive aspects of A Short History of Nearly Everything is the breadth of its coverage. In addition to the popular staples of astronomy, cosmology and Darwinian genetics, Bryson ventures much further, into chemistry and oceanography, volcanology, meteorology and other branches of the earth sciences. In any book like this, there are bound to be omissions and it would be churlish to make much of them. But I have to lament the absence of any discussion of chaos and the new perspective it has brought to science over the past three decades. James Gleick's book on the subject is one of the few modern classics of science writing absent from Bryson's 14-page bibliography.

There is no doubt, however, that the huge number of readers who are likely to engage with this book will enjoy themselves while painlessly imbibing a lot of good science. Bryson ensures this using his trademark readability, continually interweaving his self-deprecating narrative with oodles of human interest. He has a wonderfully acute eye for telling images and analogies and is usually content to lift them from other writers when he sees no need to embellish their idea. In one, he quotes cosmologist Alan Guth's striking comparison of looking back to the beginning of the universe with looking down from the 100th floor of the Empire State Building. As Guth points out, the discovery of microwave background radiation, evidence of the dying embers of the big bang, "pushed our acquaintance with the visible universe to within half an inch of the lobby floor".

Occasionally Bryson goes one better than his teachers. It is now commonplace to note that background radiation gives rise to about 1 per cent of the "dancing static" that we see on a television screen. But it takes Bryson to bring this fact home: "The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe." Sheer brilliance.

He is often adept, too, at introducing lay readers to the unfamiliar territory that scientists inhabit. With his usual good humour and without the least condescension, he makes us feel equally at home thinking about molecules hectically interacting in a test tube as he does contemplating the lithospheric plates slithering around the earth's surface. In a tour de force, he takes just a few pages to stun us with the astonishingly compact complexity of the living cell, making us see not just how much we know but how much is left to explain.

Not surprisingly, Bryson deploys all the familiar historical anecdotes to keep up the level of human interest and to strengthen his narrative.

Although he is no science-history sophisticate, he does convey something of the messiness of how science develops - its blind alleys, its socio-political influences and the tension between the communitarian nature of science and the human flaws of its participants. Nor does he ignore its pettiness and snobberies, for example when he relates the physicist Wolfgang Pauli's disbelief on hearing that his wife had left him: "Had she taken a bullfighter I would have understood. But for a chemist..."

Some will say that the entire book reeks of midnight oil, but I would prefer to acknowledge the dedication and skill with which Bryson has done his homework. Alas, like any student, he makes mistakes and far too many of them have survived to the printed page. Simple errors are common and there are too many confusing explanations, for example when he tries to describe the expansion of the universe and again when he attempts to distinguish between mass and weight - a distinction worth getting right.

Bryson has been let down by his publishers. They should have done much more to check his manuscript, to weed out the mis-statements and to edit it properly before rushing to publish it in time for summer-holiday reading lists. If just a small fraction of the book's marketing budget had been invested in employing some academic checkers, the result could well have been a much better book, one that all but the most fastidious scientists and historians could enjoy.

None of these reservations should obscure Bryson's achievement in bringing science to a wider audience. He has much to teach many aspirant writers about presenting science to the majority of people who neither know nor care much about science and what it has to say about our place in the universe. I hope that science has not seen the last of Bryson. Perhaps he could bring his uniquely attractive voice to medicine, a hugely appealing subject that many people believe to be paradigmatic of science. Someone should send him the collected works of Roy Porter.

Graham Farmelo is director of the Dana Centre project at the Science Museum, London.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Author - Bill Bryson
ISBN - 0 385 40818 8
Publisher - Doubleday
Price - £20.00
Pages - 515

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