A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A whirlwind tour through the history of science, told with charming wit that makes the whole thing more human and fun. Bryson has a the sort of dry British humor that you might associate with Terry Prachett or Douglas Adams (though he's American by birth, he has lived much of his life in Britain). Here he travels through the modern history of science, and in the process of showing how each field matured, teaches the concepts behind it.

He complains near the start of the book that most people think science is boring because science books are boring. There's no reason for this to be the case, he argues, and then proceeds to show why. His approach is to show the lives of the men and women who set themselves to the herculean task of understanding the natural world. He shows their trials and triumphs, their tragedies and heartbreaks, their folly and jealousy and petty rivalries. (And oh my, are there many of the last category.) Scientists are human just like anyone else, but so often are "scientists" (or "experts") referred to as as sort of separate class from humanity, distant and cold, methodically pursuing the truth in their ivory towers. This isn't how it is, and Bryson thinks that by showing the truth, he will make science warm and approachable for non-scientists.

Being science-minded myself, it's hard to say if this is true; but I think so. If nothing else, I had a great time reading this book, even though I knew much of the material in it already. Rarely did a paragraph go by without a chuckle.

The point that perhaps struck me most was how many scientists throughout history labored in obscurity most of their lives, pursuing something they believed to be of vital importance to humanity's understanding of the natural world, desperately seeking validation and recognition of their work from peers, but never achieving it. Shortly or perhaps long after their death, their work is finally found to be the missing piece in some puzzle, but even then it's often the case that someone else nabs the credit.

But I think they can be said, along with every other scientist, to have achieved a more important goal in the end: increasing the awareness and intellect of the uber-entity that is mankind. One can hardly think of a more worthwhile way to spend a life.

Rating: 3 of 5
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