Wednesday, September 07, 2005


For me, reading Bill Bryson’s ‘A short history of nearly everything’ is like eating my favourite salted peanuts. I don’t want to put too many in my mouth, but at the same time, I just cannot stop eating them, and they have become an addiction. I just don’t want to become delirious with all the fat and calories.

Not since Isaac Asimov’s ‘Asimov’s Guide to the Sciences’ has an author come out with such a vast and entertaining survey of not just modern science for the layman, but also about its endearing characters, and its relation to society and history. Bryson largely does justice to the grandiose title of the book, churning out an account of almost every significant scientific and technological event that has happened in the last thousand years. A few central themes run through the book; atoms, the universe, chemistry, the earth, evolution, and biology. But in between, Bryson manages to squeeze a truly commendable coterie of characters and events that provide an enriching narrative of connected details.

His style is full of humour; I would say that he is another John Casti, albeit maybe less sophisticated but probably more accessible to the average layman. The protagonists that have made science and our modern way of life possible deserve equal attention, and it is to Bryson’s credit that he gives due attention to lesser known individuals relatively forgotten by posterity, who were nonetheless responsible for significant advances in science and technology. Many of these directly affect even political affairs. Like Clair Patterson (such an unfairly little known name, that some of the few books that do mention him, think that Clair is a she- I wish she were), who measured the age of the earth and came up with the modern figure of roughly four and a half billion years, a figure that is the boon of scientists and the constant bane of creationists and conservative politicians. Or the women behind the star-gazing men, who contributed much to our understanding of the universe through their common technical prowess of data analysis, but who inevitably gave up their day in the sun to the men.

I truly got the feeling that I was taking in bites of my choice food item when I successively read Bryson’s engaging and crisp paragraphs. Each one in a chapter has a common thread running through it, threads which have not been explored by many others and hence are rare and revealing. Coming back to Clair Patterson, Patterson was a geologist who took up the method of estimation of age based on pioneering work done by Ernest Rutherford at the turn of the twentieth century (Interestingly, Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg has noted that after two centuries, what people will remember would not be who was President of the US or Prime Minister of England in 1900, but the fact that Rutherford was making measurements that would one day determine the age of the earth and abolish religious dogma- at least potentially and largely). However, he had immense trouble doing the correct measurements, as the samples he was testing had been contaminated by lead- the same lead that was so wildly popular as an ‘anti-knock’ agent in car engines. (I remember learning this during 12th std.). Catching hold of this thread, Bryson leads us to Thomas Midgeley, who introduced this practice, and who was also responsible for the introduction of CFCs. Not surprisingly, this takes us to the destruction of the ozone layer, global warming etc.

In this way, we are led through a panorama of chemistry, geology and biology in this case, with some cogent related tales about the politicking that plagues any action that has to do with the environment. Bryson has several such threads in the book, but they don’t become cliché, the narratives always flow smoothly, and they are always peppered with engaging anecdotes about characters, history, and human nature.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the amount of attention that Bryson gives to the earth sciences; to geology, climatology, paleontology and so. That marks it apart. Especially in developing countries, research in the earth sciences is unusually neglected, and even when people have written books about the twentieth century, physics and biology, and not the earth sciences, have usually been the centerpieces. However, Bryson quite rightly devotes a significant amount of attention to this body of knowledge, which will be one of the crucial pieces of twenty-first century wisdom in the most comprehensive sense. Even in the twentieth century, the earth sciences bequeathed to us, issues with which we are going to grapple in the most fundamental way in the future. Deforestation, global warming, and greenhouse emissions are surely going to be much more than just political javelins in the coming decades; they are going to be issues on which our survival will truly depend. Pleas for saving the environment are no longer simply slogans chanted by the ‘pro-environmentalists’, if there’s anything like that anymore. Every intelligent citizen of the world today needs to be aware of these issues if he wants to ensure the well being of his future generations. Bryson has done a commendable job in explaining every significant environmental issue along with its history in this book. This much-needed emphasis on earth sciences has seldom been seen elsewhere.

Also, fundamentalist creationist bigots and their political supporters, whose influence is unfortunately being felt now in schools and colleges, are now questioning issues like evolution, crucially grounded in sciences like paleontology and anthropology. It is imperative that children as well as their parents must be made aware of the essentials of evolution by exposing them to the relevant scientific background, so that everyone can join early and come together in this fight against a new age of ignorance and religious fundamentalism. Bryson quite lucidly explains evolution and convinces us that it is first and foremost, an irrefutable fact, irrespective of the theories about it. Thus, he settles the matter quite firmly, and cleverly manages to skirt political debate about it by not entering into any big arguments against creationism. Little known anecdotes about Darwin and his contemporaries provide a dash of humour.

In the end, Bryson’s book is what any excellent science book should be about, but that seldom is; portraying science as being as much connected to our way of life and to our past, present and future, as are politics, history, economics, and social upheavals. Too often, scientists and science are portrayed and viewed as ivory tower entities, removed from the general state of the world. At most, they are seen as progenitors of technology that contributes to a high standard of living. However, the history of the twentieth century should easily convince us otherwise, that science is as much a part of our consciousness as anything else that we value, and it is as essential as love, empathy, and patience, to the furtherment of our human condition. As an instrument that lifts the dense and insidious veil of ignorance, science and rationality have never been more important. Bryson tells us why that is, and why that should be so.


Anonymous Anirudh said...

Read this one on Helicon and have decided to visit this blog regularly.

2:45 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home