Life, the universe, everything

11th July 2003 at 01:00
A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING. By Bill Bryson. Doubleday pound;20

It may have fewer answers than the title suggests, but Bill Bryson's user-friendly encyclopedia of big ideas hits the spot, writes Sarah Dry

Did you know your heart pumps enough blood in a year to fill four Olympic-sized swimming pools? That the electricity in your body equals the charge of a thunderstorm? That the blue whale is the largest species ever to have lived on earth? That only one bone in a billion becomes a fossil?

Such is the stuff of wonder in Bill Bryson's latest tour d'universe, served up as breezily as a Supernova burger and Milky Way shake at the intergalactic drive-in.

Not sure what a superstring is? Don't worry, Bryson quickly reassures, neither is he. Expertise is given a short leash in this fizzy collection of gee-whiz moments in science. Instead, in 30 loosely linked chapters, Bryson brings his readers a user-friendly version of the greatest hits of science, from the awesome impetus of the Big Bang to the poignant end of the dodo.

Its cheerful, energetic and, above all, encouraging tone brings to mind nothing so much as a man rolling up his sleeves, about to get really into things, and gesturing, enthusiastically and amiably, for you to do the same.

Bryson's chatty voice pushes the reader through the morass of information.

A master of analogy, he helpfully musters a cartload of peas and apples (to say nothing of Olympic-sized swimming pools and Empire State buildings) to help his readers conceptualise the very large and the very small. The result is fast, fun and perhaps unavoidably superficial: Bryson has relied heavily on popular science books, newspapers and magazine articles.

Roughly speaking, these 423 pages are a breathless review of the universe, earth, and life on it. It's also at least partly a recap of the history of science - Bryson is interested not only in what we know (or think we do), but also when we gained the bits of knowledge that brought us to where we are.

Rather than present a chronological history of science, Bryson has attempted to provide a biography of the universe, with smaller characters (amino acids, bacteria and human beings) inserted when appropriate.

The action careens between disciplines and time periods. With nominal transitions, Bryson shifts from oceanography to the beginnings of life, from taxonomy to cellular biology. Volcanoes, earthquakes and extinction-producing meteorites inject some welcome Hollywood-style drama into a narrative that would otherwise be crippled by its encyclopedic brief.

As might be expected from the consummate chronicler of the quirky, a series of eccentric, forgotten, or exceptionally unlucky individuals get brief cameos. So we meet Henning Brand, whose discovery of phosphorus was a by-product of experiments to turn human urine into gold; Richard Norwood, the English mathematician who spent two years painstakingly measuring the distance from the Tower of London to York to help fix the size of the earth; and the Reverend Robert Evans, a soft-spoken amateur astronomer with a talent for spotting supernovae.

As you may have guessed, Bryson isn't serious about being comprehensive. He seems content to portray science as a vast and busy arena, more interesting and mysterious than conventional teaching would have us believe. But the challenge, for good science writing and good science teaching alike, is to impart both a sense of wonder and a sense of mastery. Bryson provides the former in abundance, but his hodge-podge approach means there simply isn't time to get to know anyone or anything thoroughly. One can't help wishing he had told us a bit more about rather less, which would have given him more scope to put his much-loved storytelling skills to use.

Remarkably, Bryson doesn't mention the artefact from the history of science most suited to his tale: the cabinet of curiosities from the natural world, arranged according to the taste of their owner and displayed for the entertainment of his peers.

Sarah Dry is the author of 'Curie, a Life: an illustrated biography of Marie Curie' (Haus Publishing)

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