June 5, 2013

Book Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly EverythingA Short History of Nearly Everything

by Bill Bryson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So often scientific books lose us lay people with their PhD language. Not Bill Bryson. Using his infamous skill as a story-teller, he approaches the history of science with the same non-threatening approach John McPhee applied to the geology of America. Technicalities are dispensed with broad, non-pedagogic strokes while the surrounding humanity draws the reader into the intellectual excitement that is science. Readers can’t fail but want to read more.

Here are some of the topics he covers:

  • the Cosmos
  • how to build the Universe
  • Welcome to the Solar System
  • Elements
  • Einstein’s Universe
  • the mighty atom
  • quarks
  • the troposphere
  • the rise of life
  • small world
  • the richness of being
  • cells
  • Darwin’s singular notion
  • the road to man

Here are some of the chapter beginnings:

  • If you had to select the least convivial scientific field trip of all time, you could certainly do worse than the French Royal Academy of Sciences’ Peruvian expedition f 1735.
  • …Hutton calculated the mass of the Earth at 5,000 million million tons… Hutton had assumed that the mountain had the same density of ordinary stone, about 2.5 times that of water…
  • Buckland was a bit of a charming oddity…. He was particularly noted for… his desire to eat his way through every animal in creation…
  •  He became the leading authority on coprolites–fossilized feces…
  • Chemistry as an earnest and respectable science is often said to date from 1661 when Robert Boyle of Oxford published The Skeptical Chymist
  • The nineteenth century held one last great surprise for chemists
  • As the nineteenth century drew to a close, scientists could reflect with satisfaction that they had pinned down most of the mysteries of the physical world…
  • While Einstein and Hubble were productively unraveling the large-scale structure of the cosmos, others were struggling to understand something closer to hand…
  • in 1911, a British scientist named CTR Wilson was studying cloud formations by tramping regularly to the summit of Ben Novis…
  • People knew for a long time that there was something odd about the earth beneath Manson, Iowa.
  • in the 1960’s while studying the volcanic history of Yellowstone National Park, Bob Christiansen of the USGS became puzzled about something that, oddly, had not troubled anyone before: He couldn’t find the park’s volcano.

Don’t they make you want to read on?

While I have studied most of Bryson’s topics at some foggy point in my academic career, by the time I finished this book, he had me living them. If all students read this book, we’d have more female (and male) scientists to solve the world’s problems.

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blog, Technology in Education featured blogger, IMS tech expert, and a bi-monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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