Monday, September 25, 2006

Bryson, Bill. A short history of nearly everything. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2003. 544pp.

I'm a bit of two minds on this book. Really, I almost consider it two different books that I could review separately. The first, a book I really like, that I think is an important contribution to efforts to improve scientific literacy amongst the general population. The second, a book that subtly undermines efforts to improve scientific literacy among the general public by essentially portraying most scientists as lying, egocentric freakazoids.

Let's do the good review first. This book is a fun read, a hard thing to say about most science books, popular or otherwise. Bryson has an engaging style and a good eye for the most accessible stories. And the emphasis is definitely on stories, on the role of individual scientists in the history of scientific discoveries. He comes at the science using the stories of the scientists and inventors, always bringing the knowledge to a human scale and understanding, always giving a good understanding and grounding of the science in everyday life. And, the search for scientific understanding as part of the everyday lives of the scientists. Like I said, the story is king here and Bryson really personalizes science in this book. If scientists often seem a little remote as they are portrayed in popular culture, well Bryson goes out of his way to make scientists seem very human.

What sciences does he concentrate on? Really what we sometimes call the hard sciences: physics and astronomy especially, chemistry, geology, all the earth sciences. The age of the universe, the earth and life (especially human life) on earth is one of his dominant themes throughout the book, so palaeontology, paleoanthropology, evolutionary biology, particle physics all play important roles in those big questions and he treats them all engagingly.

I also admire Bryson's resolutely rational and non-supernatural approach to the material. No intelligent design theories here, only a scientific, rational, reality based approach. And a very strong environmental message. Bryson fights the good fight here, with good material on species extinction, pollution and climate change. Another bonus is an 11 page bibliography to get you going on further reading on all the subjects he tackles.

And now for the not-so-good news. The humanization-of-science thing goes a bit too far, and Bryson seems to go out of his way to dig up some unsavoury gossip on virtually every historical scientist he talks about. It's one thing to glorify and sanctify these all-too-human people, but on the other hand, I don't think portraying them all as a bunch of kooks is a good idea either. For example, on p. 357 he tell us how Linnaeus was obsessed with sex and always giving organisms slightly naughty names, such as one genus of plants he named Clitora. On p. 351 he tells us of other scientists who were in the habit of stealing hundreds of specimens from London's Natural History Museum. And on p. 385, he gives us a detailed description of Charles Darwin's mysterious disease, making him seem to be a bit of a hypocondriac. And on and on, these are just a few examples from a short stretch of the book. A bit of balance, please, Mr. Bryson.

Actually, I guess there's a third book under discussion here. The book that includes the stuff that Bryson chose not to cover. The list of scientific disciplines I mention above is pretty impressive, but I think that some areas that he covered excessively could have been trimmed and some areas that were left out could have been added. As I imply above, one candidate for trimming was his very extensive coverage of how we have come to the current age of the universe and the Earth. While interesting and useful, it could easily have been shortened. The areas I would have added, which I think would have made the book even more valuable, are math, computing, a more general coverage of biology and a bit on philosophy of science. First of all, biology. Bryson really doesn't cover biology to the same extent as the earth sciences, and what he does cover in biology is mostly human evolution, ie. paleobiology. Related to paalaeontology and really in the same strain as the earth sciences. So, at least a little more botany, a little physiology and maybe even some expanding the decent coverage of genetics to include the bioinformatics revolution. Math -- it seems to me that most of modern science rests on a foundation of mathematical reasoning and to not even cover calculus and what it means to scientific progress is shortchanging the reader. Mathophobes be damned. "Nearly everything" has to include a bit of math.

Computing -- as we know, computers are ubiquitous in the world today, and that is no less true of modern science. Computational methods are so prevalent in scientific research these days that I think Bryson owed it to his readers to give at least a taste of the growth and development of the computing field and its influence on science. And really, the pioneers of computing have to be at least as colourful as any other discipline.

And lastly, the philosophy part. I'm certainly not advocating that he go into all the gory details of the philosophy of science -- all that postmodern sociology stuff is a bit heavy for a pop science book. But I also think he owed it to his readers to talk a little bit about what the scientific method is and how it works. It seems to me that understanding a little bit about how scientists know what they claim to know is a useful bit of knowledge. With all the various wars on science going on out there, a little bit of understanding of how scientists get around to making their claims will make us all a better informed citizenry, and this book leaves us hanging a bit in that respect. Remember, "nearly everything."

But enough of all the carping. Buy the darned book. It's mostly pretty good and a surprisingly easy read with more positives than negatives. The illustrated version, which I don't have but have glanced through in the bookstores, is probably even easier to get through.



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