Part of the reason that I majored in English is so that I could avoid taking more science classes. I don’t like science class. I don’t really care how cellular mitosis works, I’m uninterested in memorizing the periodic table, and physics problems about rowing a canoe across a fast-moving river, while probably the most applicable to everyday life, bore me. Science itself is interesting, though. I like learning what we know about the universe and the world around us – I just don’t want to know the details of how we came to that conclusion. The world is round? Awesome. Do I want to do the math to prove it? Not even a little bit.
These days I get my science from trade books instead of textbooks, and it’s definitely the way to go since trade authors seem to make more of an effort to be interesting than some textbook authors. They also don‘t have to meet any curriculum standards or provide vocabulary words. I recently read Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith’s Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution (Norton 2004)and Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything (Broadway Books 2003) to beef up my knowledge of science history, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning about other people’s accomplishments without having to attempt to recreate them with my own spectrometer/microscope/etc.
Origins is exactly what the subtitle says: an explanation of cosmic evolution. Don’t put your head down on the desk and take a nap. (I mean, if you’re tired, go ahead. Goodness knows that I never turn down a nice zizz. I’m saying don’t zone out because you think that this is boring. I‘m not going to steer you wrong.) These guys dumb it down enough so that it’s very readable for those of us without doctorates in astrophysics. There are amusing examples about figuring collision cross-sections of cement mixers to keep you entertained. Plus, there are two signatures of photographs, and you know that I like a book with pictures. Once you’ve read Origins you can spout interesting facts about how the fusion of elements inside stars eventually leads to a supernova (you’re all good until you make iron, which selfishly absorbs energy instead of releasing it) or argue whether you think we’re alone in the universe right now or ever (you don‘t have to do the math! They take care of that for you). Next time you run across Dr. Tyson’s cameo on The Big Bang Theory reruns or see him discussing favorite elements with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, you’ll know who he is and feel like a smarty-pants because you’re so informed about the universe (it’s expanding!) and all of the bits and bobs that make it what it is. Apparently there’s also a Nova special that I’m going to have to watch because I LOVED this book.
Now that we’re all up to date on the cosmos, we can turn our attention to Earth and A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson also covers the Big Bang and the solar system, but he soon focuses his attention on the history of our planet specifically. If you’d like to know which scientists figured out what and when, it’s here. Unsurprisingly, the wrong people have been credited with major discoveries throughout history on a fairly regular basis, either because the first guy didn’t want to share his findings or he couldn’t get anyone to publish them or he lived in a country that no one paid any attention to. You’ll also discover that some of the pillars of modern-day science made a few missteps along the way. Albert Einstein, for instance, once wrote a forward to a book that discounted plate tectonics as a foolish notion. This doesn’t negate his groundbreaking E=mc2 work, of course, but it‘s nice to be reminded that even geniuses make poor choices from time to time. Textbooks don’t provide these kinds of fun facts.
My favorite part of this book is the bit about the rise of man, which I knew nothing about until I took an anthropology class in college because no one can teach evolution in public school. Thanks to that class, I could once identify the skulls of homo erectus and homo habilis, a skill that has not come in handy in my professional life and thus has fallen out of my head, more’s the pity. If I ever run across a fossilized hominid in my back yard, I won‘t know what I‘m looking at and will have to call in professionals to identify my find. Anyway, it was nice to be reminded of the details of this branch of science, and to learn things like how early man had a kind of factory for making seemingly useless axe-heads that they’d travel hundreds of miles to get because they were only made in this one place. It was also interesting to note how little we actually know about early hominids, a fact that was not covered in Anthropology 101. According to Bryson, scientists are constantly squabbling about which fossils belong to which species, not to mention how many species there actually are. No one seems to have a handle on who died out and who evolved into something new. This is unsurprising since we have so few fossils to work with, but it sounds like there is new DNA research that may help to solve some of these problems. I need to find a book that’s been updated since 2003 to see what kind of advances have been made in the past 9 years. I’d google it for you, but my internet is down and I’m writing this post in wordpad while I wait for the cable guy to show up and fix it, so you’ll have to do your own googling. Think of it as a lesson in self-sufficiency, much as early hominids had to learn to take care of themselves to ensure the propagation of the species.
My one gripe with Bryson’s book is the tone. He can get a little didactic. Understandably so, since it’s usually about how humans are destroying things that we don’t understand, and you and I both know that this is how we roll. Be that as it may, I found the guilt trips tiresome after a while. Yes, it’s alarming how quickly and indiscriminately we killed off the dodos and how stupid the museum curator was who threw away and burned the last stuffed example. However, I wasn‘t there to stop it, and I don’t like feeling like I personally set the bird on fire. I suppose I’m supposed to take that guilt and put it to good use by saving animals that are endangered now, but my contrary streak does not take direction very well. Plus, he spent a good long time talking about how species went extinct on a regular basis long before humans were here to ruin everything, so he’s undermining his argument a bit there. Preachiness aside, I did like this, and I do recommend it. Just be aware that you’ll find yourself regretting things that you had nothing to do with. Redirect that sadness for good if your contrariness allows for it.
This concludes our educational detour for today. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled Boxcar Children programming as soon as my internet is back up and running again.