Friday, May 05, 2006

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Another trashy book (albeit not as trashy as DVC) that I read on holiday was Bryson's breezy survey of modern science. I've enjoyed it, as one can hardly fail to enjoy Bryson's writing. But as a work on science, this is a very, very bad book indeed.

The problems are two-fold. Firstly, it doesn't contain much science. It is mainly a good example of the history of science genre I call "How about that and here's another thing." Bryson is most interested in writing about all those weird and wacky boffin types and their amazing discoveries. His vision of the history of science is the traditional march of true knowledge. There is no real history here, just a lot of anecdotes (many of which are fictional) strung together to make us feel good about science.

But this attention to history is no bad thing, because it means there less of Bryson failing to explain science to his readers. The conceit of the book is Bryson, a layman who knows nothing about science, informing his equally ignorant readers. If this sounds like the blind leading the insane, then that is because it is. Read this book and you will learn nothing about science except a few factoids and an impression that it is so difficult that scientists must be real swell guys. I realised this when I asked my Dad after he had read the book if I could test him. No, he said, he didn't know any more than when he started.

Added to this is an editor who can't seem to tell the difference between million and billion, controversy given as fact and the rather obvious materialistic bias of the author. In the chapter on the Big Bang, Bryson admits the universe is fine-tuned and lets Martin Rees have his say on there being an infinite number of universes. But there is no room for the rather more obvious solution to fine-tuning, that the universe was created deliberately. Why not talk to Polkinghorne?

Thus, most readers will leave this book thinking even less critically than when they started. It won't help them evaluate the next health scare. It won't help them understand the differences between science and religion. It won't educate them on the limits of science. It will just give them a warm feeling inside about people who wear white coats.

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