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Nashwaak Review - Volume 16-17

Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything

by Trevor Sawler

Like most of us, I have only vague memories of much of the time I spent in elementary school, yet there is a single event that stands out vividly in my mind. The event took place in a �mobile� � one of those low-cost add ons to schools so popular in the 70s. It would have looked right at home in a trailer park. It was late in the academic year, and the sunlight was streaming in through grimy windows, elevating both the temperature within the classroom and my desire to escape the tedium of having my mind improved. Our science teacher that year was a crusty old man whose name has long since fallen out of my memory, but I recall this event with perfect clarity. Apparently we had been spending a fair amount of time learning about the periodic table � atomic weights, atomic particles, and all that sort of thing. I�m sure it all made sense to me at the time, but the vast majority of this information has since been relegated to whatever part of my memory I use to store bits of knowledge that have no practical application in my everyday life. There is one exception to this, however. A single element from that chart will forever be branded into my consciousness.

Sodium.

Now, this was also about the time that I had begun to experience the first effects of near sightedness. I knew it was going to happen. Every member of my extended family seemed to wear thick, imposing glasses, and I was relatively certain that it was going to happen to me. Even in those dim, dark days we had a rudimentary understanding of genetics, after all. A few weeks earlier I had complained that I was unable to see the blackboard clearly. My teacher, naturally, simply moved me to the front of the class until I was fitted with the appropriate corrective lenses. So on this fateful day when a tiny, innocuous amount of sodium was being introduced to a placid beaker of water, I was right at the head of the class. Front row, dead center.

Interestingly, it turns out that when you add even a tiny bit of sodium (referred to as �Na� by those in the know) to any quantity of water (or H20, if you prefer), you have a rather remarkable explosion. I�m sure you can imagine the anticipation that the teacher had when he began this experiment. Here was a classroom full of sleepy, inattentive students who were pretending to hang on his every word, while in fact most were thinking about that night�s episode of The Six Million Dollar Man or the current exploits of the stylish detectives on Starsky and Hutch, and he was about to snap them all back to awareness with a rounding crash of thunder and flash of light. I�m sure he looked forward to it. It may even have represented the highlight of his entire year. If he was lucky, there might even be a few shrieks.

In his enthusiasm, however, he must have made an error. Either he had too much sodium, or too much water. I am unable to tell you the precise reason for what happened next, although I suspect it was the presence of too much water. My rationale for this explanation is simple. That water, which had only seconds before been sitting peacefully in its beaker, underwent a swift and decisive relocation. Like the rest of the class, I was instantly wide awake and alert; unlike the rest of the class, I was absolutely drenched.

I tell you this not as some form of self-administered therapy, nor as a criticism of the public education system in Canada in the latter half of the 20th century. I tell you because it awakened in me a desire to know more about why it happened in the first place. Why does sodium seem to have an aversion to getting wet? Or is it instead the water that has a deep seated aversion to the sodium? I really wanted to know. I probably even asked the teacher (later, of course, when the shame of my impromptu shower had faded somewhat). If he gave me a meaningful answer, however, I have no recollection of it. What I do remember is making a number of trips to the school library to learn more about science and technology. It must have had some kind of lasting impact on me, as for reasons I still can�t fully articulate I even went so far as to begin my post-secondary education in the field of science. Unfortunately, that didn�t turn out so well. I�m sure I would have had more success, were it not for the absence of both desire and talent.

It is only now, nearly three decades later, that I have actually begun to learn more about science, cosmology, genetics, and so forth. This knowledge is not gleaned from scholarly publications, texbooks, or journals; it is not from a friendship formed with a physicist; it is not even from hours spent in front of the Discovery Channel. Instead, it is from a remarkable book by Bill Bryson with the ambitious title of A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Bryson is perhaps best known for his books such as A Walk in the Woods, wherein he tells of his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail, and In a Sunburned Country, his book about Australia. He is always entertaining and engaging, and this foray into the field of science is no exception.

Like me, Bryson seems to have a desire to know more about how and why the universe is the way it is, and just how scientists have managed to come to the conclusions that they have. Unlike me, he actually had sufficient ambition to undertake the research and present it in such a way that advanced degrees are not a prerequisite. His book covers a vast array of disciplines, including geology, chemistry, paleontology, physics, and cosmology, among others.

The book consists of six parts, beginning with �Lost in the Cosmos�, wherein he gives detailed instructions on how to build a universe, and then moves into an examination of the earth itself (geology), the subatomic particle (physics), and so on until he ends with the history of the human race itself. What is astounding about this material is how much fun it is to read. Unless you wear a white lab coat to work each day, chances are you have little or no desire to immerse yourself into the finer points of particle physics, or to spend much time wondering about what it was like during the first few milliseconds following the creation of our universe. A quick read of the first page of this book, however, will change your mind:

No matter how hard you try you will never be able to grasp just how tiny, how spatially unassuming, is a proton. It is just way too small. A proton is an infitesimal part of an atom, which is itself of course an insubstantial thing. Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this i can hold something in the regionof 500,000,000,000 of them, rather more than the number of seconds contained in half a million years. So protons are exceedingly microscopic, to say the least.

This is Bryson�s genius: he manages to take things that are incredibly abstract, and represent them in concrete ways that actually have meaning to the average person. Even small things, such as his determination to avoid using cryptic notation for numbers, makes the book an enjoyable read. For example, scientists as a group seem enamoured of using a secret code for something as prosaic as large numbers. Bryson refuses to adopt this form of notation, so instead of writing something like 6.023 x 1023, he will actually write the number out in its entirety. If you are curious, it looks like this:

60,230,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

I think. Large numbers make me nervous, so I may have left a zero or two out. That number is actually significant; it�s called Avagadro�s number, and corresponds to the number of atoms or molecules needed to make up a mass equal to a substance�s atomic or molecular mass, in grams. Apparently this is important to scientists. Rather than the (somewhat opaque) definition of Avagadro�s number above, however, Bryson gives us this:

Avagadro�s number is a basic unit of measure in chemistry, which was named for Avagadro long after his death. It is the number of molecules found in 2.016 grams of hydrogen gas... Chemistry students have long amused themselves by computing just how large a number it is, so I can report that it is equivalent to the number of popcorn kernels needed to cover the United States to a depth of nine miles, or cupfuls of water in the Pacific Ocean, or soft drink cans that would, evenly stacked, cover the Earth to a depth of 200 miles. An equivalent number of American pennies would be enough to make every person on Earth a dollar trillionaire. It is a big number.

Isn�t that a lot simpler to understand? It is this direct approach to topics normally far too esoteric that makes the book such an enjoyable read. Bryson manages to do considerably more than just present obscure scientific concepts in a readable format (although that in itself is nearly miraculous); he also has a tendency to give us historical figures in human terms. For example, we are told of an Oxford professor with an interest in paleontology who had the habit of working in flowing academic robes while in the field; we are told of another budding scientist whose fascination with the human body encouraged him to bury corpses in his flower garden until he was ready to examine them; and we are told of a genetleman by the name of Haldane, who was so interested in the effects of different gaseous substances that he regularly subjected himself to nearly lethal levels of oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. I suspect that there is no need to go into the invetitable results of his experimentation.

Bryson takes us through a number of different areas of scientific research, and interestingly enough, he manages to completely shift the way that we think about science and those who devote their lives to increasing our knowledge of the universe around us. I, for one, was astonished to find out how little we actually know, and how far off our assumptions about things were in the not too recent past. For example, as recently as the 1920s, there were scientists who were convinced that the dark spots we see on the moon were the result of swarms of insects migrating on the moon�s surface. There were in fact scholarly papers published maintaining this very thing. In another case, there were scientists in the 19th century who were convinced that while examining cells from human tissue through magnifying glasses, they could see tiny people � presumably potential offspring, waiting to be born. Amazing. It makes one wonder just how far off our current understanding of the world actually is.

In summary, this is an engaging read. As always, Bryson�s wit drives the book, and makes what we might think of as dry, uninteresting material quite the opposite. My only complaint is a simple one: I still have no idea why sodium and water are unable to peacefully coexist.