Published: Nov 17, 2009
Category: Non Fiction
For almost half of her 7.75 years, our daughter has gone to sleep as her mother delivers a lecture. Not the kind of lecture that follows bad behavior --- our kid just prefers facts to fiction. And so her mother gives a nightly discourse called “Bore Me to Sleep.”
Our child knows that no policeman can enter the apartment and take Daddy’s computer without a warrant. She knows about the banking crisis (though she prefers to believe that some financial instruments are called “high-heeled munis” and “credit default flops”) why the seasons change, how your digestive system works, what fashion designers do, how everything is made of the same atoms, the movement of a bill through the House and Senate --- she's been exposed to a ton of random information.
She could easily be Bill Bryson’s child.
Bryson got interested in how the world worked in the 4th or 5th grade, when an illustration in a textbook --- the Earth, with a wedge removed --- caught his interest. It would be nice to report that the book ignited lifelong learning. But it was a standard-issue textbook, not at all exciting. So it wasn’t until he was a famous writer (author of a funny memoir called The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and the even funnier A Walk in the Woods) that he wondered again how the world worked.
A few years and 475 pages later, he produced A Short History of Nearly Everything. My wife devoted a summer to it and read every word. I flunked Science repeatedly in school; it’s enough for me to know that some important event occurred 500 million years ago.
Now he’s created A Really Short History of Nearly Everything, and he’s done me --- and you, and every curious kid burdened by a dull textbook or a brain-dead science teacher --- a huge favor. He’s taken the greatest hits of his Big Book, trimmed the history so the text is mostly stories, and added illustrations that are variously helpful and amusing.
The result is a book that a curious 9-year-old can get something out of, a 12-year-old can read like a novel, and an adult can devour, blessing Bryson all the while for explaining the history of life on earth in such reader-friendly prose.
Among the cool contents:
--- The Big Bang was so massive that, in just three minutes, “98 percent of everything there is, or will ever be in the universe, has been produced.”
--- A baby weighing 4 kilograms has about 400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms in its body.
--- “The average distance between stars is just over 30 million million [no, that’s not a typo] kilometres. Of course it is possible that alien beings travel billions of kilometres to amuse themselves by planting crop circles in the English countryside or frightening some poor guy in a truck on a lonely road in Arizona. But it does seem unlikely.”
--- “Fly from London to New York and you will step from the plane a quinzillionth of a second younger than the friends you left behind.”
Weather, geology, space, energy, the atom --- it’s all here, and all stunningly interesting. What’s not here? Creationism. Bryson not only doesn’t deal with it, he doesn’t acknowledge it; for him, the world is 4,550 million years old. And evolution isn’t a “theory,” it’s a fact: “The first visible mobile residents on dry land were probably like modern woodlice.” (In Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and certain heartland states, a kid who brought this book into school could possibly be in trouble.)
Of greater concern to me than the science/religion schism: “99.99 per cent of all species that have ever lived are no longer with us.” And people may be “bad news” for other species. Bryson’s conclusion: “If you were designing an organism to look after life in our lonely cosmos, to monitor where it is going and keep a record of where it has been, you wouldn’t choose human beings for the job.”
This is not to say that the book ends with a downer. Just the opposite. What drives Bryson is the idea that life is exciting, mysterious and glorious. There’s no way to read his book without wanting to keep it going for at least another 60 or 70 years.