Monday, June 06, 2005

Book Review: "A Short History of Nearly Everything"

At 560 pages, Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is anything but short. That is, until you consider that it really is the history of Everything.[1] In fact, Bryson's gift for understating book titles, as employed for "A Walk in the Woods" (in which he chronicles his attempt to hike the entire Appalachian Trail) is in full swing for this work.

It's a bit of a choppy book. But it's not easy to segue from the formation of, say, mountain ranges to the formation of Life, without sounding like a parody of Airplane.[2] Besides, we seem to lack quite a bit of hard evidence for most of Earth's history.

Otherwise I liked this history a lot. At times, I thought I was reading Douglas Adams, except that the scientists in an Adams novel wouldn't be as outlandish as the ones we owe our understanding of science to. The end, where Bryson discusses extinction, reminded me a great deal of Adams' "Last Chance to See."

But Adamseque examples appear even earlier on in the book. When Bryson discusses the 1918 flu epidemic, he describes an experiment in which 62 prison inmates are purposely exposed to people infected with the deadly strain. Not one even came down with the flu, yet the doctor who conducted the study became ill and died.

If you're the type who tends to worry about things that can go wrong, this book definitely will send you over the edge. Not only is our tiny planet the only place in the Universe we know of that can support our form of life, there are actually very few places on Earth that are hospitable. Even worse, though, is that the Earth is overdue for a spell of inhospitablility. And there'd be very little time to even prepare[3] and no escape. What are these things we're overdue for? A collision with a big asteroid, the blowing of a huge volcano in Yellowstone National Park, a magnetic reversal[4] are just a few of the things we have to look forward to. And it's not as if we can just run on over to Magrathea to pick up Earth Mark II if anything breaks.

[1] Everything scientific, that is. Imagine if he decided to include the history of religion, art and the Rolling Stones?

[2] Like when the guy says, "What happened? Tell me everything from the beginning." And the goofy guy says, "The Earth cooled. And then the dinosaurs came...."

[3] You might ask, "How would you prepare for an asteroid strike? Put a paper bag over your head? You can't do anything about it." Well, you could max out your credit cards buying all kinds of crazy stuff. You might bump into me at Walmart buying out their line of lava lamps.

[4] "What's so bad about a magnetic reversal? You can just turn your compass around 180 degrees when hiking," you might say. Actually the magnetic field shields us from harmful solar winds. The reversal might be a slow process, with a gradual decline of Earth's magnetic field to zero, and then a gradual increase in the strength of the opposite sense field. We might have enough time to build up an entire industry around radiation-proof clothing.

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