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briefhistoryThere’s a certain irony about reviewing this book. But that’s for another WordPress category.

To continue my long held tradition of wanting to talk about Heat anyway, I read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, published in 2003.  I was attracted to the book by Bryson’s intentions in writing. He was unsatisfied with the state of his scientific knowledge and thought writing a book about it would be a good way to fill in the gaps.

Genius. I love it. And in some ways it captures the heart of why this crappy website is still online at all.

In the book, Bryson walks through a pretty dizzying array of topics in a chronological manner, teasing out a little narrative here and there. Making science itself an evolving character. He takes the time to cover personal squabbles and romances in the history of scientific discovery. He is inquisitive, and seems to enjoy the way old ideas are displaced by new, better ones–Something I am also fond of pondering.

In the first five parts, Bryson uncovers how we came about our knowledge of the cosmos from the largest we’ve conceived, to the smallest, even unobservable things. In the fifth and sixth parts of the book, he walks the path of understanding that brought about the theory of evolution.

While I felt more confident in my knowledge as I put down the book, I also realized that I couldn’t cite any particular knowledge. Within the pages, few scientific theories are actually pressed. Rather, they’re leveled with a sense of anticipation that a better theory is just around the corner. It’s hard to say that I have a greater knowledge, but I’m decidedly less puzzled by what seems like audacious scientific claims.

I also found the disorganization of scientific discovery to be compelling. Drama, cultural backlashes, politics, back stabbing. There was just a lot of that going on. We like to joke and say things like, “Science to the rescue!”. But in actuality, ‘science’ is splintered. Scientists don’t have allegiance to some mother organization. The point is, there’s something noteworthy in many scientists agreeing on something.

In Conclusion

I enjoyed this book a lot. It kept me turning pages. It’s a nice mix of narrative history and intriguing  distillation of big scientific ideas. This is one of those great general interests books. Whenever I find myself in  another one of those “Man, how can they figure out the age of that rock” conversations, I always recommend this book.