Friday, June 25, 2010

Books: A Short History of Nearly Everything


A Short History of Nearly Everything

I've drawn attention to A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson before (not on this blog, but elsewhere).  I LOVE this book.  I find it utterly fascinating and fun to read.  It is Bill Bryson's attempt to understand the oldest questions posed about our universe and ourselves. In his words, "The idea was to see if it isn't possible to understand and appreciate - marvel at, enjoy even - the wonder and accomplishments of science at a level that isn't too technical or demanding, but isn't entirely superficial either."

In my opinion, he succeeded!

If you read it, you'll be amazed by how much we know about the world around us, and stymied by the vast amount of information that remains unknown. 

I am particularly fond of the analogies Bryson uses - I find that they make the material accessible as well as just plain fascinating.  He covers some pretty heavy topics, but the way he writes makes them understandable (and interesting) to even middle school students. 

Here are a few examples.

First, on how small a proton is...
 A proton is an infinitesimal part of an atom, which is itself of course an insubstantial thing. Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this i can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them, rather more than the number of seconds contained in half a million years.

And then, on how large space is....
Our nearest neighbor in the cosmos, Proxima Centauri, which is part of the three-star cluster known as Alpha Centauri, is 4.3 light-years away, a sissy skip in galactic terms, but that is still a hundred million times farther than a trip to the Moon. To reach it by spaceship would take at least twenty-five thousand years, and even if you made the trip you still wouldn't be anywhere except at a lonely clutch of stars in the middle of a vast nowhere.
And, finally, on how little we even know about our own home....
The distance from the surface of the Earth to the center is 3,959 miles, which isn't so very far.  It has been calculated that if you sunk a well to the center and dropped a brick into it, it would take only fourty-five minutes for it to hit the bottom (though at that point it would be weightless since all the Earth's gravity would be above and around it rather than beneath it).  Our own attempts to penetrate toward the middle have been modest indeed.  One or two South African gold mines reach to a depth of two miles, but most mines on Earth go no more than about a quarter of a mile beneath the surface.  If the planet were an apple, we wouldn't yet have broken through the skin.  Indeed, we haven't even come close.

One of the other great things about this book is that you can pick it up, flip it open to a random page (or chapter) and start reading, as I did several times in looking for the above quotes. 

Get yourself a copy of A Short History of Nearly Everything - you can most likely get it at or through your local library.  Although, you might want to get your own copy so you can mark it up with your own notes, exclamation points, and underlining (although I gave up on all that when I found that I had underlined or bracketed almost every paragraph in the first two chapters).

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