About twenty-five years ago, two very different authors tackled
the whole history of science in human affairs and wrote books for
the non-specialist on the sum total of what we know and how we
know it. The two science popularizers could hardly have been
more different. One was Carl Sagan, an avowed atheist whose
specialty was astronomy, but whose avocation was
contextualizing the history of science and placing it in a broad historical and cultural context. Cosmos would go on to become the best-selling science book in publishing history, and its tie-in to the PBS series of the same name and its lush illustrations and figures welcomed novices into a seemingly impenetrable series of disciplines and made them comprehensible.
The other writer was less well known, a man named Guy Murchie, who was a practicing member of the Bahai faith (an offshoot of Islam). Murchie's The Seven Mysteries of Life organized all knowledge around seven philosophical principles - ideas like transcendence and vitality. Murchie illustrated his own book with etchings and woodcuts of his own making, and invited those who saw themselves as spiritual or religious to appreciate the wondrous complexities of nature with the same sensibility that they used to celebrate their deities. Both tomes are still good reads today, but science has marched on and each of these books contains out-of-date material and formulations whose accuracy has been superceded.
Bill Bryson takes the same brief as Sagan and Murchie and updates those works with A Short History of Nearly Everything. He covers much of the same ground but advances these fundamental stories of man's discovery of nature to the Twenty-First Century, covering complicated, often contradictory, subjects with a flair and good humor rare among sober academics. Bryson's greatest gift is his ability to capture the essence of a complex subject or problem and express it in simplified terms without distorting it. If you have ever read a refereed journal article from Science or Nature, you will appreciate how rare this quality is. Scientists deal in facts and experimental results and distrust the literary use of metaphors and similes.
Scientists adore the phenomenon of repeatability (anybody performing the same procedures should obtain the same result) and minimize the importance of biography and cultural context. Scientists write for others in their field and only a few have mastered the art of explaining their work's significance to their mother or a neighbor. A scientist like Carl Sagan, who spent a lot of his time popularizing, was resented by his colleagues for filling the vacuum that they themselves had created.
Bryson is not a scientist, but is a nature and travel
writer. He possesses good gut instincts and a flair for the
telling detail. He seems to have read just about every book
and article that present and explain new theories, and has
produced a one-volume synthesis that could well serve as an
introductory text to the history of science for humanities
majors. When I was in college, a course called Physics
for Poets was offered, which presented the vagaries of the
mechanical universe without the abstract
vexatiousness of higher mathematics. Bryson has produced a modern version of this, on a grander scale. Call it Science for Sensualists if you desire.
But whatever you call it, you will not find a better one-volume introduction to the opaque disciplines that have transformed our world into one dominated by technology, a world that has become increasingly interdependent despite geographical separation. Science has enabled humans to dominate the planet, and has raised many red flags of warning in the process. Voters now make decisions that have global consequences, and an informed sense of what we collectively know is increasingly critical. If I could make this book mandatory reading and a prerequisite for voting, I would unhesitatingly do so.
Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document: