Sunday, July 6, 2003

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

Tony Lang
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bill Bryson demystifies science the way Mark Twain demystified American life - with lively storytelling and down-to-earth humor. Bryson ought to be required reading for science textbook writers. If they were half as readable, it could double the number of U.S. students with science majors.

He wanted to know how scientists figured out such things as the weight of the Earth or that viruses come in 5,000 different types or that the universe is expanding or why the dinosaurs disappeared. As remarkable as learning our solar system hosts at least 90 moons or that Yellowstone Park constitutes the world's largest active supervolcano is encountering the science heroes and scoundrels who changed our world view forever. One constant through the centuries is how many were brilliant, self-taught "amateurs" - and some not so brilliant, yet even the goofballs were focused enough to make huge discoveries.

Our region breaks into the narrative from time to time with a mention, from Big Bone Lick to the observatory to a geological epoch known as Cincinnatian.

This is a book Ohio Gov. Bob Taft's tech team should read before trying to "sell" his $200 million Third Frontier bond issue on this November's ballot. They will need to be as lucid and frank to persuade voters to invest in Ohio high-tech ventures.

One disarming trait in many experts Bryson quizzed was the candor with which they admitted how much we still don't know about oceans, subatomic particles, other galaxies or our earliest ancestors. We don't even know if "Lucy" - reputedly the 3.18-million-year-old missing link between ape and human - was a female, since we have only about 20 percent of "her" skeleton.

Bryson also explains, without polemics, how precarious life is on the macro or micro scale. Any administration could benefit from this painless lesson in stewardship. Most of us featherless bipeds should find it humbling to hear that 99.99 percent of all species that ever lived are no longer with us. Since this planet is an experiment, Bryson's science history-plus gives fresh reasons why we need the best and the brightest working on the big questions.

Books that might have changed the world
Off With Their Heads, by Dick Morris
Eleanor of Aquitaine, by Alison Weir
The Emperor of Ocean Park, by Stephen L. Carter
The Press Effect, by Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Paul Waldman
A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
Letters to a Young Conservative, by Dinesh D'Souza

Arbitrator's ruling: Assistant chiefs
Hong Kong: New law protested
Hot cars: Leaving kids unattended
Cooperation, not control, at the heart of marriage
Readers' Views