Monday, April 26, 2010

Touring the Universe

I'm continually amazed at the ability of (some) non-scientists to convey science information in a way that is more interesting and compelling than (most) scientists.

I just finished reading "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson, a travel writer. This is a book about "life, the universe and everything, from the Big Bang to the ascendancy of Homo sapiens". Bryson is best known for "In a Sunburned Country" a hilarious book about his travels in Australia.

But who better to take us on a journey of the universe than a travel writer?

Bryson clearly put great effort into researching the information for this book and in confirming his facts (he interviews many scientists--tops in their field as well as those on the fringe, for example, amateur astronomers). However, what sets this book apart is Bryson's (1) fascination with the topic, and (2) ability to explain complex (and sometimes dull) science in a way that is fascinating and understandable by anyone. Moreover, he not only gives the "official" version of discoveries, but ferrets out the "back story" of the scientists who actually made the discoveries or who provided key insights, but who never received credit. If you are familiar with Bryson's work, you also know that he is a master at "tongue-in-cheek" asides that make you chuckle and sometimes even laugh out loud.  How many times do you do that while reading a book about science?

What Bryson does in "A Short History..." is make science come alive. He not only gives the facts and figures, but explains how scientists go about getting that information.  He makes it personal, which is appealing to non-science readers (and to me as well).  Here is an example--a description of an unassuming Australian minister, an amateur astronomer who searches for supernovae in his spare time. Reverend Evans is apparently a genius at finding these rare and "fleeting" events:

"To understand what a feat this is, imagine a standard dining room table covered in a black tablecloth and someone throwing a handful of salt across it. The scattered grains can be thought of as a galaxy. Now imagine fifteen hundred more tables like the first one--enough to fill a Wal-Mart parking lot, say, or to make a single line two miles long--each with a random array of salt across it. Now add one grain of salt to any table and let Bob Evans walk among them. At a glance he will spot it. That grain of salt is the supernova."

Bryson then proceeds through descriptions of the elements, atoms, the Big Bang, and Einstein to Chapter 16-Lonely Planet:

"It isn't easy being an organism.  In the whole universe, as far as we yet know, there is only one place, an inconspicuous outpost of the Milky Way called Earth, that will sustain you, and even it can be pretty grudging."

Chapter 25 is devoted to Darwin, with Bryson's summation of "On the Origin of Species...":

"The first edition of 1,250 copies sold out on the first day. It has never been out of print, and scarcely out of controversy, in all the time since--not bad going for a man whose principal other interest was earthworms and who, but for a single impetuous decision to sail around the world, would very probably have passed his life as an anonymous country parson known for, well, for an interest in earthworms."

The book goes on for another few chapters, ending with one on extinctions, called "Good-bye".

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable and informative read. I kept shaking my head all the way through and thinking to myself, "What if science textbooks were this fun and awe-inspiring?" Bryson managed not only to convey the grandeur and mystery of science (and without any visual aids), but how interesting and rewarding it is to be a scientist.  Exactly what is needed to attract more students to science.  If I were a middle-school science teacher, I would do well to take some lessons from Bryson's approach.

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