Eclectic Curiosity

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Posted on May 12th, 2005, by Steve Hardy in Archives, Uncategorized. No Comments

A must-read. Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything puts your old science textbooks to shame. In just under 500 pages Bryson accessibly describes how the scientific world — everything from astronomy and quantum physics to paleontology and genetics — works and he does it with a sharp wit and an even flow. All of the basics are there of course but its the many little surprises, the infusion of human stories, and the awareness of interactions across disciplines that make this book special. We learn of the many eccentricities that our famous scientists and researchers had and we see just how often both ego and folly played in our (mis)understanding of our world. We also see that despite our volumes of research, centuries of discussion, and endless string of discoveries, we ultimately know very, very little about life, earth and our universe.

To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once. For the next many years (we hope) these tiny particles will uncomplainingly engage in all the billions of deft, cooperative efforts necessary to keep you intact and let you experience the supremely agreeable but generally underappreciated state known as existence. (p.1)

Although the Principia has been called “one of the most inaccessible books ever written” (Newton intentionally made it difficult so that he wouldn’t be pestered by mathematical “smatterers,” as he called them), it was a beacon to those that could follow it. (p.48)

Physicists as a rule are not overattentive to the pronouncements of Swiss patent office clerks, and so, despite the abundance of useful tidings, Einstein’s papers attracted little notice. Having just solved several of the deepest mysteries of the universe, Einstein applied for a job as a university lecturer and was rejected, and then as a high school teacher and was rejected there as well. So he went back to his job as an examiner third class, but of course he kept thinking. He hadn’t come close to finishing yet. (p. 123)

Physicists are notoriously scornful of scientists from other fields. When the wife of the great Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli left him for a chemist, he was staggered with disbelief. “Had she take a bullfighter I would have understood,” he remarked in wonder to a friend. “But a chemist…” (p.137)

And so most American academics stuck to the belief that the continents had occupied their present positions forever and that their surface features could be attributed to something other than lateral motions. Interestingly, oil company geologists had known for years that if you wanted to find oil you had to allow for precisely the sort of surface movements that were implied by plate tectonics. But oil geologists didn’t write academic papers; they just found oil. (p.177)

Of the organisms that we do know about, more than 99 in 100 are only sketchily described – “a scientific name, a handful of specimens in a museum, and a few scraps of description in scientific journals” is how Wilson describes the state of our knowledge. In The Diversity of Life, he estimated the number of known species of all types – plants, insects, microbes, algae, everything – at 1.4 million, but added that that was just a guess. Other authorities have put the number of known species slightly higher, at around 1.5 million to 1.8 million, but there is no central registry of these things, so nowhere to check numbers. In short, the remarkable position we find ourselves in is that we don’t actually know what we actually know. (p.362)

As we parted at the Natural History Museum in London, I asked Richard Fortey how science ensures that when one person goes there’s someone ready to take his place. He chuckled rather heartily at my naiveté. “I’m afraid it’s not as if we have substitutes sitting on the bench somewhere waiting to be called in to play. When a specialist retires, or even more unfortunately, dies, that can bring a stop to things in that field, sometimes for a very long while.” (p.370)

In the late summer or early autumn of 1859, Whitwell Elwin, editor of the respected British journal the Quarterly Review, was sent an advance copy of a new book by the naturalist Charles Darwin. Elwin read the book with interest and agreed that it had merit, but feared that the subject matter was too narrow to attract a wide audience. He urged Darwin to write a book about pigeons instead. “Everyone is interested in pigeons,” he observed helpfully. (p.381)

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