Reading Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, I was struck by the similarities between it and the column called "Connections" that used to be on the last page of issues of Scientific American. The fourth chapter of Bryson's engaging book, in particular, documents the travails of scientists like Guillaume Le Gentil, who set out to observe the transit of Venus in 1761 but found himself uselessly aboard a pitching ship at the time. He then prepared an elaborate viewing platform for the 1769 transit (they always come in pairs of two, eight years apart and often with centuries in between pairs) only to have that part of the sky misfortunately obscured by a cloud for the precise duration of the astronomical event. In a set of circumstances Bilbo Baggins would commiserate with, he then returned home to find that his relatives had pronounced him dead and plundered his estate.
The book is, in short, absolutely full of exactly the kind of obscure and entertaining facts that one can break out at parties to impress the right sort of people. Informative and thoroughly accessible, it's just the sort of book I would press an intelligent person without a great deal of scientific background to read. Even those with no technical inclination will appreciate the tragicomic tale of Thomas Midgley: an engineer who invented leaded gasoline, which poisoned thousands, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which destroy the ozone layer and cause global warming, and the contraption of pulleys that he meant to have adjust his position in bed, but which strangled him to death instead. Thanks to the kind of gasoline he invented, people today still have 625 times more lead in their blood than those who lived a century ago.
Bryson's is certainly the best book I have read in months: informative, effective, and entertaining. The comparison to James Burke's column is flattering and well deserved. Bryson demonstrates a considerable range of talents, from describing scientific theories to telling stories and making strong ethical points without having to be blatant about things.
Some lively things explained include how Lord Byron's poem "Darkness," which is featured in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, was inspired by the lingering smoky shroud created by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815. Many would be alarmed to learn that all modern horses have apparently descended from a handful of their ancestors who survived the Hemphillian asteroid strike about five million years ago. Most anyone would be amused to learn how Charles Darwin once spent eight years studying barnacles, only to quip afterwards: "I hate a barnacle as no man ever did before." We should all be alarmed that human activity has pushed the rate of animal extinctions to 120,000 times its historical average level.
There is much in Bryson's book to make one worried. Reading it, you learn about the massive cone of lava under Yellowstone Park that could cause such a horrific explosion as to seriously endanger humanity. You learn about the continent sized asteroids that wander through our orbit, are not tracked, and could not be stopped by any means we possessed if they were going to be in the wrong place at the wrong time for us. Still more troubling, you get a glimpse of how destructive we have been as a species. You see how little we understand life, the universe, and everything; acknowledging that is at the same time dispiriting and thrilling, an enormity of knowledge remains to be acquired and with it, perhaps, we shall find the respect that will assist our survival.