Thursday, September 21, 2006

Book Report

Lately I have been reading a wonderful book - "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson. Bill has written some other popular books, and one day on a plane ride across the Pacific he started wondering how it is that we have come to know all that is known about the world. He then set out to learn all he could about how we got to where we are now, and this book is his distillation of those years of research. He is not a so-called science writer, but he does an excellent job of explaining a wide variety of subjects in a way that is very interesting and entertaining. Much of the book is devoted to the people who made advances in science and their stories. I find this especially interesting since I am already familiar with some of the contributions of these people so it is fun to hear the more personal side of their story. These little peeks into the personalities are something that is always left out of the purely scientific texts. A good example is a quote used to open the book:

The physicist Leo Szilard once announced to his friend Hans Bethe that he was thinking of keeping a diary: "I don't intend to publish. I am merely going to record the facts for the information of God." "Don't you think God knows the facts?" Bethe asked. "Yes," said Szilard. "He knows the facts, but He does not know this version of the facts."

While I enjoy reading, and spend a fair amount of time doing so, I make very slow progress on books, even on a book I enjoy as much as this one. Most of the time I either read journals or magazines or newspapers (or a bit on the web) and I end up with almost no time left for books. On top of that in this case, on nearly every page is something that is so intriguing that I have to track down my wife and read it over again to her. Many of the items of interest are just plain facts of nature presented in a clear and understandable way. For example, this introduction to atoms and molecules:

"The great Caltech physicist Richard Feynman once observed that if you has to reduce scientific history to one important statement it would be 'All things are made of atoms.' They are everywhere and they constitute everything. Look around you. It is all atoms. Not just the solid things like walls and tables and sofas, but the air in between. And they are there in numbers that you really cannot conceive.

The basic working arrangement of atoms is the molecule (from the Latin for 'little mass'). A molecule is simply two or more atoms working together in a more or less stable arrangement: add two atoms of hydrogen to one of oxygen and you have a molecule of water. Chemists tend to think in terms of molecules rather than elements in much the way that writers tend to think in terms of words and not letters, so it is molecules they count, and these are numerous to say the least. At sea level, at a temperature of 32 degrees Fahrenheit, one cubic centimeter of air (that is, a space about the size of a sugar cube) will contain 45 billion billion molecules. And they are in every single cubic centimeter you see around you. Think how many cubic centimeters there are in the world outside your window - how many sugar cubes it would take to fill that view. Then think how many it would take to build a universe. Atoms, in short, are very abundant."

He also does an excellent job of making clear the non-obvious consequences of these facts of nature. Since atoms exist in such great numbers and since they exist forever (almost) the atoms around us (and in us) have been part of many other things in the past, including other people:

"Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms - up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested - probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name."

I could go on and on (just ask my wife) and I probably will before long (just ask my wife), but my little excerpts really don't even scratch the surface. Anyone who has any interest in the world around them is likely to find this book to be very interesting and entertaining.


Lizzie said...

I bought A Short History of Nearly Everything about a year ago and still haven't gotten around to reading it. Thanks for reminding me that I need to!

wunelle said...

The ex wife recommended this too! The pressure... is... becoming... too... too... much... to... bear! No, it really sounds fascinating. I must add it to my pile.

I've read several books on Feynman--the squishy, non-mathematical stuff for pilot-y people--and man, he was a character (and so, so brilliant).

Jeffy said...

I'd be interested to hear what you think if you get around to reading the book. I suspect that my overall interest in science makes me a bit of a biased reviewer.

wunelle - I too am a big fan of Feynman. He is one of my favorite people of all time. Not only was he brilliant, but he knew how to live life. He always had a good time, and you can tell that people loved to hang out with him. It is the rare theoretical physycist who is the life of the party.

I am looking for non-fiction for my 10-year-old daughter to read, I've been thinking about taking another look at "Surely You Must Be Joking" to see if it might be appropriate for a young reader. I remember loving it, but I was an adult when I read it.