21 September, 2011

My Year With Bryson

Although a gazillion reviews by the fiercest of critics and most ardent of fans have been written on this superlative book, I cannot keep from writing my own views on the wildly engaging "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson. The reason for undertaking a task as redundant as this can only be explained by the quote Bryson starts his book with:

The physicist Leo Szilard once announced to his friend Hans Bethe that he was thinking of keeping a diary: 'I don't intend to publish. I am merely going to record the facts for the information of God.' 'Don't you think God knows the facts?' Beth asked. 'Yes', said Szilard. 'He knows the facts, but He does not know this version of the facts.'

There. Now don't question my reasons. Reading frantically through all the nuggets of information Bryson weaves together in a mosaic of science and story, I am amazed at his powers of narration. Marrying mind-boggling scientific discoveries with the eccentricities of their discoverers, he unearths connections spanning continents and time periods that make the history of science fascinating. The 40 shilling prize Christopher Wren proposed to the man who could explain the elliptical nature of planetary orbits. The contenders? His dinner guests Edmond Halley (of Halley's comet fame) and Robert Hooke (who discovered the cell). Why didn't my Physics teacher tell me about how Halley collected money (from his own impoverished pocket) to publish Principia, in which the brilliant yet unconventional Newton explains his momentous laws of motion, among other astounding deductions about planetary motion and the not-so-spherical shape of the Earth? Starting from singularity and the Big Bang, Bryson goes to extreme lengths to simplify. To illustrate, I quote him on the minuteness of a proton: 
A proton is an infinitesimal part of an atom, which is itself of course an insubstantial thing. Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this 'i' can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them....Now imagine if you can (and of course you can't) shrinking one of those protons down to a billionth of its normal size into a space so small that it would make a proton look enormous. Now pack into that tiny, tiny space about an ounce of matter. Excellent. You are ready to start a universe.
And then he attempts to capture the vastness of the universe. As Bryson goes about unraveling the hows and whys of science, I am grasped by the sheer courage it must have taken to write a book as ambitious as this, for an audience that has the attention span of a twitter. In his characteristically witty style, Bryson announces his opinions on several key figures: we learn of Cavendish and his reticence (he communicated with his housekeeper through notes!), the egoistic Hubble and his unforgivable lying, Madame Curie's scandalous affairs that stunned even the relatively accommodating consciousness of 19th century Parisians and Mendeleyev's refusal to accept the existence of radiation. Bryson thus, on his quest to demystify science, makes it 'attainable', showing that for all their almost inhuman brilliance, the people that contributed to the fascinating fabric of science were also plagued by the mundane. Moving from the more 'well-known' marvels of Newtonian physics, the book traces the events leading up to the establishment of quantum physics in a dizzying concoction of crisscrossing paths of superlative science. The beauty of this revolutionary theory was the sheer scale of blatant craziness it unleashed on the scientific world.
Neil Bohr is known to have said that a person who wasn't outraged on first hearing about the quantum theory didn't understand what had been said. 
Part of (alright, most of) the brilliance of Bryson's book is the fact that when told well, science is the most interesting subject there is. It has intrigue and suspense, unanswered questions floating in a sea of confusion. It has unpredictable characters warring over momentous discoveries, sometimes fending off dwindling funds and at other times settling petty professional rivalries with etiquette befitting kindergarten children. It has bitter animosity and heart warming amicability, heady ideas and eccentricities all thrown into a pot of opportunity any author would die to dip into. Bill Bryson takes all these mouthwatering bits and goes a step further. He does that thing I hate to love. He leaves the endings of chapters hanging so that you have to start on the next chapter. A sample:
At all events, thanks to the work of Claire Patterson, by 1953 the Earth at last had an age everyone could agree on. The only problem now was that it was older than the universe contained it.
Could it get any racier than that? Blatant sensationalism if there was any! But that is what science does, it threatens to run away with your imagination. And then does exactly that. From physics, the book moves on to geology, a subject which I feel, along with geography, is ignored in an abominable fashion in the Indian education system. Volcanoes and earthquakes are charted, the 'recycling' of the Earth's crust is elucidated and moving from the cosmos to the core, Bryson continues to captivate. Fossils are discovered and he moves on to the realm most familiar to me, that of the bewildering living world.

Bryson bravely straddles the extremes of biology, from awe-inspiring dinosaurs to humble, ubiquitous microbes. I recognise Miller and Urey's bell jar experiment that used to grace the introductory chapters of most Biology books in school. Simulating the origin of life in a laboratory? Could it get more surreal? Bryson also throws in juicy facts for the did-you-know-freaks. For instance, according to scientific estimates, there may be more life under the Earth than on it. Interestingly, in this nether world,
...microbes shrink in size and become exceedingly sluggish. The liveliest of them may divide no more than once a century, some no more than perhaps once in five hundred years.   
As I flew from one lively chapter to the next, Bryson resurrected for me, some well-loved biologists: Pasteur (who, apart from popularising the more familiar pasteurisation process, also gave us the cell theory which states that all life arises from pre-existing cells) and Robert Hooke (who, after fighting with Newton over credit for the inverse square law, went on to discover cells from cork!). Not only did I revisit Leeuwenhoek (the brilliant Dutch lens maker whose name used to give me spelling nightmares) but Robert Brown too (the man who discovered the nucleus in a cell). As I jumped from one cell organelle to the next, enigmatic mitochondria bumping into lipid membranes, proteases and nucleic acids, I was confronted by apoptosis. The term refers to the fascinating field of programmed cell death or in simple terms, cell 'suicide'. I fondly reminisced about how it had captured my imagination for an entire summer not so many years ago. In times such as these, when one is so easily left uninspired, being caught up in an idea, even if it is as morbidly fascinating as apoptosis, can be a cherished memory.

Next, the book moves on to unravel the mysteries of our lineage, tracing the patterns of Lucy and her ancestors. Peering into the fascinating and often frustrating field of paleontology, it is amazing that we understand anything about the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens (that's us, the 'thinking man'!), considering the paucity of fossil records. The last chapter, woefully named 'Goodbye' ends the book on a slightly sombre note, one encounters the luckless dodo and other species who have been drive to extinction at the hands of the modern human race. But with the tattered state the Earth is in currently, any other ending would have seemed out of place.

To be fair, breaking away from my breathless fawning over the book, I do understand that, for all its brilliance, it is not a scientific publication. Critics have questioned the authenticity of some numbers, splitting hairs over Bryson's figures of the number of cells in a human body. Others have mentioned how the book emphasises only those parts of the history of science that caught Bryson's fancy. But the book never claims to be the Holy Grail of science. As Bryson explains in the introductory chapter:
The idea was to see if it isn't possible to understand and appreciate - marvel at, enjoy even - the wonder and accomplishments of science at a level that isn't too technical or too demanding, but isn't entirely superficial either. 
And if this alone was the aim, Bryson passes remarkably. For me, the book rekindled my love for the sciences, at a time when when it had dwindled in the face of my current social science-centric thesis. Reaffirming the book's importance in simplifying science for the layman without making it superficial, a critic reluctantly ended his review with: "But then again, if my grandchildren in the next few years begin to display some real interest in learning about science, I'll certainly put this book in front of them.
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PS: Thank you to Girl 1 who recommended the book, and to whom I owe my love for reading. It helped that she added in very vehement tones, 'This should be made compulsory reading in all schools.' 

PPS: That Girl 1 recommended the book at all can be attributed to a stimulating conversation with the Paranoid Android: Marvin (he of the planet-sized head brain) where he sounded almost Brysonic in his attempt to elucidate, the beauty of cosmology and quantum mechanics.

For the ones who just won't read (shame on you), go video:
  1. The Cosmos Series by Carl Sagan
  2. From Newton to Einstein (9 min, watch it!!) in The Elegant Universe Series (3 parts)
  3. A simplified (not superficial!) narrative on BBC: Everything and Nothing 

11 comments:

  1. Phsaw, all these books still do not tell you how superficial and fickle most of our answers to everything is. There's a reason why we have more theories than laws in physics and when you actually get down to reading them, you realize that all of it has been a lot of trial and error and luck[ google singularity and you'll get the idea :) ] Also, its not so much fun when you've had to do the math behind it. Nevertheless, the book is indeed a superb piece of literature

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  2. On the contrary, I felt that the book does precisely that. Throughout, it emphasises that, for all the inroads we think humanity has made, most of what we know is incomplete, uncertain or both. And the book attempts to explain why it is so.

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  3. It's the brain that's the size of a planet. Even dinosaurs can have planet-sized heads.

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  4. Khush?

    Have you learnt nothing woman?

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  5. Lovely! And Girl 1 owes her thanks to her Boy 1, at whose instance she read it! Will tell him to read your post :)

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  6. One can trace a chain of goodwill made by people who recommend this book to others! Three cheers for Boy 1 :)

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  7. Ah... One of my fav books ever.. Read half of it non stop on a train journey from delhi to bombay, returned it to its owner, bought my own copy, lent it and have been waiting for it ever since... Read the whole of physics part, bio part still remains...

    I always loved Brysons writing and have read a lot of his travelogues. But this one is different. He makes you fall in love with physics if you already weren't. He makes you chuckle, and he brings out the romance in science.

    I am requesting my copy back... Its about time...

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  8. Oh yes, losing books to borrowers is a crime. And that too such a wonderful one!

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  9. No no... I gave it to her, insisted she read it.. She left it at home, i just need to remind her to get it back...
    Sharing has its own fun too.. :D

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  10. I love Bill Bryson books. One of my fovorites is A walk in the woods! I haven't tried this one, will read it soon!

    Thanks for visiting my blog and the tip!

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