This is a book about the history of science by Bill Bryson, a travel writer. You might think a soft, jokey travel writer is not the right person to write about science history. You would be wrong.
Bryson, a former journalist with a natural affinity for details, has come up with a book about how we know things. Things like what happened at the K-T extinction, or the distance to the nearest star, or why water is sometimes called H₂O. More importantly, he makes us care about these things.
This book will appeal to those who have previously shied away from such unpromising territory as 'why did we even think about putting large quantities of poisonous lead in petrol'. Bryson, like any good journalist, has found the human story behind so many apparently-dry subjects such as the development of the Periodic Table, or the quest to measure the size of the universe.
Most books about the history of science studiously avoid putting the human interest into these stories because science is supposed to be unfettered by emotion and personality. It is supposed to stand up on its own, always subject to rigorous testing by the Scientific Method. Bryson dispels the myth that scientific arguments stand or fall on fact, logic and testable evidence alone, and reveals how fashion and tradition impede the acceptance of new ideas, even when the accepted view is clearly at odds with the evidence.
One drawback is that the medical sciences and social sciences are neglected in this book. It concentrates on the physical sciences: geology, physics, chemistry, astronomy, but I guess you have to leave some things out, or the book would be about, well, Everything.
Bryson, an American by birth, can easily pass for a Brit in his use of dry, off-beat humour. He uses a delicate touch to deflate the most pompous of scientists and to inflate the modest journeymen who revolutionised the way we think about our world. It is no surprise to learn that Bryson spent most of his early career working on British newspapers, both regional and national.
Bryson has written a lot of travel books. I have always liked his easy writing style, but been a little put off by his puerile sense of humour. History of Everything was written only a few years after A walk in the woods and Notes from a small Island but Bryson has lost the off-putting profanity and crude fun-poking he put into those books. Perhaps he felt some of the gravity of the subject matter. Perhaps he grew up. Perhaps he just got so carried away with the origins of physical knowledge that the teenage thrill of using crude words in a published work disappeared.
Bryson’s other works are rollicking tales of travels through Europe or along the Appalachian Trail. In History of Everything, the writing still flows just as freely; the jokes are still laugh-out-loud funny, but the humour is cleverer and I do not remember a single cuss-word. The title, of course, pays homage to Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.
One of the more attractive features of Bryson's travel writing is his eye for obscure detail. He takes us to places we have never heard of and tells us fascinating anecdotes about the people who undermined their own city causing it to fall into the ground, or a perfectly preserved Roman mosaic buried under a plastic tarpaulin in an overgrown English wood.
Bryson uses this same technique in History of Everything to show us the determination, perscipacity and inventiveness of the adventurers who first measured the distance from Earth to the Sun, for example.
In one memorable example, he describes what happens when a supervolcano blows. All life, save insects and bacteria, is wiped out for thousands of miles around. There is a ‘volcanic winter’ more severe than the nuclear winter forecast by the doom mongers. Crops fail; large animals starve, ice caps grow as sea levels sink.
Bryson next introduces us to a ponytailed, Harley-riding geologist with multiple piercings. This gentle man takes us to the largest active volcano in the world; one that could blow tomorrow, or in ten thousand years. The Harley enthusiast reports that geological evidence shows it erupts on an approximate 600,000-year cycle. That volcano is the powerhouse behind the geysers and earthquakes in Yellowstone National Park. It is a bulge of molten magma, pushing up from the mantle to just below the earth’s surface.
Yellowstone is 1500 feet above the surrounding land because the magma has deformed the earth’s crust, swelling up from below and stretching the crust so thin that the boiling, liquid rock is just a few thousand feet beneath the fields where the bears and bison roam. Just a few hundred feet of clay and rock keep this bubble of destruction under control.
When it does blow, it could go suddenly, or slowly. Either way, America will be laid waste. In the former case, most of the North American continent would be buried under metres of pumice, just like Pompeii, but on a vastly bigger scale. Earthquakes would truly make the earth move, while tsunami would drown most of the world’s coastal cities. Then we’d have to suffer dozens of volcanic winters as dust blocks the life-giving sunlight from reaching the ground.
If it blows slowly, then molten rock would pump out of the ground for tens of thousands of years, first scorching and then burying the world's breadbasket under flowing rivers of rock, while the emissions of gas and ash would poison the atmosphere and affect the weather for many generations. The nearest geological equivalent is the Deccan Traps in India, which originally covered an area 1000 miles across with basalt to a depth of 500 feet or more.
That’s a storyline for a disaster movie to beat them all, but it’s just a single chapter in this deeply involving book.
Yellowstone last blew 630,000 years ago, wiping out 60 miles of mountain range and burying distant California under 20 feet of fallout. New York's covering was three times as deep. The next eruption was due about the time the first human saw a herd of bison grazing on the fertile grasslands of modern-day Wyoming. The mid-West has been on borrowed time ever since.
We have telescopes watching space for the doomsday meteorite, but the biggest volcanic eruption on the planet, Bryson tells us, is barely on the radar.
It's this kind of little-known, but vital detail that makes Bryson so interesting. He gives the same treatment to hundreds of different facts, discoveries and inventions. His ability to find enthusiasts for science, like the ponytailed geologist in Yellowstone who know and understand their subject, brings this book alive. He describes them, their mannerisms and their enthusiasm with careful details designed to re-inject humanity into subjects that have traditionally tried to expunge all traces of personality from their texts.
Above all, however, it’s Bryson’s own enthusiasm and gentle humour that makes it so easy for all readers to start caring about these important subjects.
A Short History of Nearly Everything is not a book to be read in one or two long sittings. More something to be dipped into a chapter or two at a time, but it's a book to be read by anyone who wants to be entertained by the biggest story of them all.