Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Brief Can Still Be Thorough

Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything may be brief but there is no question that the journey your mind will take upon reading the book is neither brief nor is it over when the book ends. Make no mistake about it, Bryson really does attempt to carry you through the history of nearly everything by beginning with the beginning of the universe and ending with what we know about DNA. In fact, his book could just as easily be titled A Brief History of Nearly Everything We Know. Those last two words would be helpful because throughout the book Bryson tackles the Rumsfeldian triage of what we know, what we don’t know and what we don’t know we don’t know. He also gets into the nitty gritty of how we know what we know.

You’ll likely be left with a feeling that there is a lot you don’t know you don’t know. I was astounded merely by the description of the solar system and understanding its scale properly. We really are inundated with maps and artists’ renditions that sometimes leave the feeling that space isn’t all that big (at least within the solar system). Nothing could be further from the truth and no map on a classroom wall could actually accurately represent the amazing scale of even our solar system. Perhaps my favorite factoid of the many found in this book is that if the Earth were the size of a pea, Pluto would still be roughly 2 miles away. At fulls cale, it’s a truly phenomenal distance

The book really keeps a pace that gives it an IMAX like “Journey to the fill-in-the-blank” feel. Or maybe better put (if more obscurely) it creates the same feeling as the movie “Powers of Ten”. All along this journey of knowledge Bryson takes pit stops to tell us about the people who discovered so many of these amazing things. Newton, Pasteur, Einstein, Gödel, and Watson and Crick are all given an interesting share of anecdotes producing a feeling of close proximity while the overall scope of the book remains so large. Probably the most fascinating story revolves around an apparently great scientist whom I had never heard of (or had forgotten) named Henry Cavendish who discovered Hydrogen and calculated the weight of the planet. I don’t want to steal Bryson’s thunder by repeating the particular anecdote; suffice to say it is highly amusing and Henry Cavendish was an intelligent and strange man.

I enjoy reading books about science and this was one of the best I’ve read in terms of its depth and I guess what I would call its “reading level”. It never sent me scuttling for a dictionary or encyclopedia while still filling me in on a lot that I didn’t know and absolutely left me with a feeling of wonderment about our little corner of the Universe. Appropriately, this is the topic that Bryson ends with after discussing extinction (both past and present) : awe in our even being here. It is truly amazing that the universe formed and evolved in the ways that it did so that we could be. Unfortunately, our frequent error is to assume that it must have been that way for us and that it’s therefore ours to do with as we please. In fact, I think Bryson’s book does a fantastic job of pointing out that we shouldn’t be quite so arrogant and discuss ideas so vastly beyond us concerning why we are here and instead be happy with our little accident and try to focus on doing a better job taking care of it.

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