Popularizers of science abound: Isaac Asimov, Marcus Chown, Richard Dawkins, Paul Davies, Timothy Ferris, Stephen Jay Gould, Carl Sagan, and Steven Weinberg, to name a few. Add another name to the list: Bill Bryson.
In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson, who lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, has written a lucid work on, well, just about everything: physics, biology, chemistry, zoology, paleontology, astronomy, cosmology, geology, genetics, meteorology, oceanography, and taxonomy.
From "the Big Bang" (the beginning of the universe) to "the Big Birth" (the appearance of life on Earth), Bryson translates the arcane, esoteric mysteries of science into comprehensible language, and does so with wit, wisdom, sharp-eyed observations, and hilarious comments. He shows that science need not be boring; it can be fun.
In the Introduction, Bryson confesses that not long ago he didn't know what a proton was, didn't know a quark from a quasar. Appalled by his ignorance of his own planet, Bryson determined to take a crash course in science, and for three years he devoted himself intensively to reading books and journals dealing with science, and pestering scientific authorities with his "dumb questions." This book is the result of his project.
By reading Bryson we learn that a physicist is the atoms' way of thinking about atoms and that a human being is a gene's way of making other genes. Whether writing of nematode worms or Cameron Diaz, Bryson uses analogies and anecdotes that help make science accessible, and less intimidating, to laypersons.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)said, "The closer one gets to a subject, the more problematic it becomes." The truth of this aphorism also applies to the baffling questions of science.
Things get a bit bizarre both in the macrocosmos (such as the superstring theory that postulates a universe with at least eleven dimensions) and the microcosmos (such as quantum physics that describes the quirky behavior of quarks, the erratic behavior of subatomic particles).
According to Bryson, some of the things scientists say begins to sound worryingly like the sort of thoughts that would make you edge away if conveyed to you by a stranger on a park bench. Matters in physics have now reached such a pitch that it is almost impossible for nonscientists to discriminate between the legitimately weird and the outright crackpot.
Alexander von Humboldt observed: "There are three stages in a scientific discovery: first, people deny that it is true; then they deny that it is important; finally they credit the wrong person." Bryson rehabilitates many of these unsung thinkers by throwing the spotlight on overlooked and underappreciated scientists.
In spite of the brilliant contributions of scientists such as Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Charles Darwin, many of the "facts" about the universe and life on Earth owe as much to supposition and speculation as to science.
Bryson devotes an intriguing chapter to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, as explained in two seminal works, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859) and The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871).
Trouble is, the mechanism of natural selection ("Darwin's singular idea") needed a "deeper" explanatory mechanism. Not to worry. Thanks to the pioneering work of Gregor Mendel on dominant and recessive "genes" (Mendel himself never used the word) and the decoding of the "double helix" of DNA by James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins, the mechanism of Darwin's natural selection has been found, an "engine" that powers the evolutionary process.
Interestingly, the DNA code reveals that human beings are 98.4 percent genetically indistinguishable from the modern chimpanzee. There is more difference between a zebra and a horse, or between a dolphin and a porpoise, than there is chimpanzees and humans.
Readers well-versed in science may grumble that there's nothing much new here. However, Bryson wrote this book not for professionals but for laypersons. A Short History of Nearly Everything is an excellent primer for "the person in the street" wanting a (largely) comprehensible overview of science.