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Essays - Quicklet on Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything

“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.”


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“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.”

Was There Science Outside Europe?

There is a conspicuous absence of non-Western science in A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Bryson’s scope rarely ventures beyond Europe or North America, and it’s rare that he mentions a scientific contribution by a person of color.
William 'Bill' McGuire Bryson (born December 8, 1951) is a best-selling American author of humorous books on travel, as well as books on the English language and on scientific subjects.

(So rare, in fact, that I cannot find any scanning through the book) For a book that claims to be a history of (nearly) everything, it tends to forget that (nearly) everything should include the rest of the world.

This is a book about the progressive history of science, starting in the late Renaissance, which has, unfortunately, for much of its history been controlled by white, wealthy men.

Eurocentric bias is nothing new in science or history; in most of the literature of the last hundred years, science begins with Aristotle and ends with the Human Genome Project, and never ventures south of the Texas border, or east of former Iron Curtain.
Bill Bryson was born on December 8, 1951. He American author of humorous books on travel, as well as books on the English language and on science. Born an American, he was a resident of Britain for most of his adult life before returning to the US in 1995. In 2003 Bryson moved back to Britain, living in the old rectory of Wramplingham, Norfolk, and was appointed Chancellor of Durham University. A Short History of Nearly Everything is a popular science book by American author Bill Bryson that explains some areas of science. Bryson describes the size of the universe, and that of atoms and subatomic particles. He then explores the history of geology and biology, and traces life from its first appearance to today’s modern humans. He discusses the possibility of the Earth’s being struck by a meteor, and reflects on human capabilities of spotting a meteor before it impacts the Earth, and the extensive damage that such an event would cause. He also focuses on some of the most recent destructive disasters of volcanic origin in the history of our planet, including Krakatoa and Yellowstone National Park.

Bryson ignores, for example, the contributions of Russian cosmonauts and physicists during the Cold War’s space race. He never writes about the pantheon of Arab philosophers, doctors, and scientists who were active at a time when Europe was still in the Dark Ages.
But just where is the private life in all this? Edison first lit his lamps for J.P. Morgan on Wall Street. But all winter long in the countries of northern Europe, to this day, you cannot go to an inn or a home in winter without finding it ablaze with candles. Sure, they have electric light, but they find the candlelight home-like. They welcome you in, the door is shut and the party begins. That, I think, is the sort of place where private life begins.

He shies away from discussing any civilization that existed prior to the invention of the Gutenberg press, such as the Egyptians or the Babylonians.

Part of this comes down to the nitty-gritty details of what, exactly, is “science.

The subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures.

” From a Western standpoint, the heart of science is the scientific method: observation, measurement, hypothesis, experiment, ending in reproducible results. Underneath all of this is the ego of the scientist; Bryson writes often about the various feuds over whose “discoveries” preceded whose, races to publish results, and various attempts to destroy rivals’ reputations.
What is missing is reflection on private life itself. It is indeed a comfortable book, but it has little to say about what all this seeking of comfort might mean. Early in the book, for example, he names Father Marsham, the rector who built his house. The mention gives him an opening to dilate on the many contributions of the class of Victorian clergymen. Overpaid and underworked, they took the opportunity to excel as botanists, archeologists, linguists, economists, inventors, pathologists, writers and naturalists.

Prestige was nearly as important as the advancement of human knowledge, and as much work was put into publicizing one’s results as finalizing them. The inventors of such things as astrolabes, gunpowder, paper, movable printing type have mostly been lost to the annals of history.
Bryson writes, "The history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly." Sometimes surprisingly and ironically slowly. He is deeply interested in everyone and everything that has contributed to that cozy quest. Although the book's chapters are apparently organized according to the rooms in his house - a 19th-century rectory in the English countryside - his real delight is not in what people did in the rooms, but in what they had in the rooms and how it got there.

With a few notable exceptions, such as in Persia and the Soviet Union, non-western civilizations didn’t leave as much of a paper trail for historians. Nor were Western scientists keen to share the honor of discovery.
Bryson has a preternatural ability to find the telling anecdote, the ironic twist on a story we thought we knew. He notes, for instance, that the tea thrown overboard during the Boston Tea Party represented almost a year's worth of tea for the colony. An average middle-class family in 19th-century London burned a ton of coal a month, which gives a visceral idea of why the air in London was so dirty that midday could look like dusk. And the green in that lovely green wallpaper favoured by William Morris, among others, was coloured with an arsenic compound that often sickened the room's inhabitants; the great U.S. park-maker Frederick Law Olmsted was one person poisoned by his walls.

The majority of the blame, however, for the invisibility of non-western scientific achievements lies squarely with writers like Bill Bryson. To write a book with a title like A Short History of Nearly Everything, and then ignore huge tracts of history and almost every country outside Europe or the U.S., reinforces the idea that all scientific contributions came from a group of white men ensconced in ivory towers.

Women and Science: A Not-Quite Love Story

In his introduction, Bryson acknowledges the dearth of women writing about science.

A reviewer noted about an earlier book by Bill Bryson that he "could write an essay about dryer lint or fever reducers and make us laugh out loud." It seems that Bryson has taken up the challenge. In At Home: A Short History of Private Life, he writes about everything from rushlights to parlours, from shellac to hydraulic cement, from the high intelligence of rats to green wallpaper.

“All [my] textbooks were written by men (it was always men) who held the interesting notion that everything became clear when expressed as a formula... So I grew convinced that science was supremely dull, but suspecting that it needn’t be.”

Women in science still face many barriers to overcome including their portrayal of subject matter, and skewed perception of female scientists’ abilities.

Among the most interesting histories within this history is the story of lighting, from resin-soaked reeds to the electric lamp. Of course, Thomas Edison and his colleagues play a large part, but so do the inventors of the Argand lamp, of limelight and of kerosene lamps. "Rock oil," he points out, was first valued for its use as lamp fuel.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee decided to tackle the question of why women’s numbers in STEM careers - science, technology, engineering, and math - are declining. They found that girls and young women encounter a lack of support in studying math and science.
His popular science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything is 500 pages long and explores not only the histories and current statuses of the sciences, but also reveals their humble and often humorous beginnings. Although one "top scientist" is alleged to have jokingly described the book as "annoyingly free of mistakes", Bryson himself makes no such claim and a list of some reported errors in the book is available online.

Stereotypes about women’s abilities with math and science create barriers between students and teachers, and a culture of sexism still pervades science and technology.

Bryson does make some attempt to rectify this in his book.

William McGuire "Bill" Bryson OBE HonFRS (/ˈbraɪsən/; born December 8, 1951) is a best-selling Anglo-American author of books on travel, the English language, science, and other non-fiction topics. Born in the United States, he has been a resident of Britain for most of his adult life, returning to the United States between 1995 and 2003. He served as the chancellor of Durham University from 2005 to 2011.

He makes mention of a few women in the sciences - such as Mary Anning, Marie Curie, Madame Lavoisier - and exemplifies the struggle of women in the sciences through the story of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin was part of the four person team that included Francis Crick and James Watson, who eventually cracked the puzzle of the structure of DNA.
Bryson has received numerous awards for his ability to communicate science with passion and enthusiasm. In 2004, he won the prestigious Aventis Prize for best general science book that year, with A Short History of Nearly Everything. In 2005, the book won the EU Descartes Prize for science communication. In 2005 he received the President's Award from the Royal Society of Chemistry for advancing the cause of the chemical sciences. In 2007, he won the Bradford Washburn Award from the Museum of Science in Boston, MA for contributions to the popularization of science. In 2012, he received the Kenneth B. Myer Award from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience in Melbourne, Australia.

While Watson and Crick eventually received nearly all the credit for the discovery, it was through Franklin’s X-ray crystallography that led to their building the helix model. Franklin was loathe to share her results with them, however, and with good reason.
Bryson has also written two popular works on the history of the English language — The Mother Tongue and Made in America — and, more recently, an update of his guide to usage, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words (published in its first edition as The Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words in 1983).

Francis Crick later said, “I’m afraid we always used to adopt - let’s say a patronizing attitude toward her.”

This patronizing attitude still pervades today. Joan Mason, a writer for American Scientist Magazine, points out that at Cambridge, women make up on 13.5% of tenured staff, and less than 2% in the chemistry department. Women account for 40% of researchers on fixed contracts, however, what Mason calls, “the casual laborers of science.

With the Royal Society of Chemistry the Bill Bryson prize for Science Communication was established in 2005. The competition engages students from around the world in explaining science to non-experts.

The lack of support, overt cultures of sexism, and the dearth of female leaders in the sciences and on college campuses, have all created a feedback loop that steers women away from careers in the sciences.

While providing tremendous insight into the history of science and the study of the world at large, Bryson’s most interesting observations lie in his fascinating description of said scientists and their peculiarities and obsessions. You would rather he forget the distracting details of the atom or the solar system altogether, and focus on the people who were obsessed with discovering all there was know about what makes our world (and other worlds that may exist in the great unknown solar system) tick.

While women have come far since the days of Rosalind Franklin, there are still many hurdles to be overcome before there is equality between the sexes in the sciences.

Overlapping Magesteria: Science, Politics, and Religion

In a 1997 article, originally written for Natural History magazine, Stephen Jay Gould outlined his new idea of “nonoverlapping magesteria”, where the authority of religion ended and that of science began.

There was the cosmologist Fred Hoyle, owner of the phrase “Big Bang,” who, according to his obituary in Nature magazine was “embroiled in controversy for most of his life” and “put his name to much rubbish.” There was the renowned and extremely odd Isaac Newton, a brilliant albeit strange character who, for unknown reasons, even “inserted a bodkin –- a long needle of the sort used for sewing leather—into his eye socket and rubbed it around . . . just to see what would happen.” There was Henry Cavendish, whose contributions to the physical sciences, including experiments with gases, electricity and heat, were enormous, and who was such a recluse that “even his housekeeper communicated with him by letter.” And then there was the wild-haired, pipe-smoking genius Einstein, who, aside from establishing himself as the greatest and most renowned scientist to date, had a child out of wedlock.

The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).

In November 2006, Bryson interviewed the then British prime minister, Tony Blair, on the state of science and education.

To cite the arch cliches, we get the age of rocks, and religion retains the rock of ages; we study how the heavens go, and they determine how to go to heaven.

Gould speaks of the meeting of minds over such topics as evolution, which has raised thorny questions about the validity of Biblical notions of creation.

Bryson’s efforts in A Short History of Nearly Everything (which took three years to write) are truly commendable, and the book deserves a spot on all bookshelves of diehard and loyal Bryson fans. It’s been praised by major newspapers and magazines and even received notable kudos from a few obscure scientific publications. Still, the author is at his best when his humor shines through, and that humor rarely surfaces in this serious and somewhat daunting tome. Advice to Mr. Bryson: Please, for your fans’ sake, return to writing travel books.

Despite its worldwide acceptance as a proven phenomenon, Creationists and followers of the theory of intelligent design continue to nay say natural selection. Gould argues that these topics shouldn’t present any conflict between followers of science or religious dogma.
Bryson is a brilliant wit and an astonishingly popular writer whose wry, accurate details of the people and goings on around him have earned him a notable position among the current reign of literary greats. His special knack is describing –- to our great joy -– the nuances and peculiarities of the various places around the world. Bryson fans can attest that when reading his books, they are miraculously transported to the places that he describes so astutely, in that oh, so Bryson fashion. His talent lies as a travel writer. Therefore, it’s odd that he decided to take on what can best be described as a science project, analyzing –- in layman’s terms -– what has already been discussed at length by scientists and the science textbooks that we all read in school.

He maintains that what is needed is a level of “mutual humility.”

Despite his powerful essay, Gould fails to contend with the politics of either science or religion. The Church, amongst other religious institutions, has routinely butted heads with science.

And the book is awash in etymologies. "Daft," for example - as in, "You must be daft!" - was a word used to describe gypsum or other adulterants that were added to sugar and other precious commodities, to stretch the product and increase the profit.

The conflicts more often have been hostile than humble. Excommunications, house arrests, torture and the threat of torture, and executions have resulted from these encounters on the borderlands of the magesteria.
A WALK IN THE WOODS: REDISCOVERING AMERICA ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL is more than just a humorous romp. Bryson takes the time to reflect on the Trail and all of the issues that surround its future survival. While the hikers only completed roughly 870 miles of the Trail’s two thousand, their efforts are to be commended and Bryson must be praised for the funny and wise book he was able to create out of such a chaotic adventure.

In modern times, we have had the Scopes trial, passionate debates about teaching evolution in school, defunding of stem-cell research. In the United States, as well as in fundamental governments in countries like Iran, the sciences are often tolerated as a necessity for society.

While living in the US in the 1990s Bryson wrote a column for a British newspaper for several years, reflecting on humorous aspects of his repatriation in the United States. These columns were selected and adapted to become his book I'm a Stranger Here Myself, alternatively titled Notes from a Big Country in Britain, Canada, and Australia. During his time in the United States, Bryson decided to walk the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen Katz (a pseudonym), about which he wrote the book A Walk in the Woods.

At worst, scientists are attacked for contradicting religious teachings. On the other hand, science and secular societies have committed their share of sins. The oppression of religious beliefs in fascist governments from the Nazis to the Soviet Union is one example. Perhaps the problem lies in power: both secular fascism and religious fundamentalism share more in common than one would think.
In 2005 Bryson was appointed chancellor of Durham University, succeeding the late Sir Peter Ustinov, and became more active with student activities than is common for holders of that post, even appearing in a Durham student film and promoting litter picks in the city. He had praised Durham as "a perfect little city" in Notes from a Small Island. In October 2010, it was announced that Bryson would step down at the end of 2011.

In particular, a lack of acceptance of differing viewpoints, and a culture of closed-mindedness.

So what is the answer? It seems as though there is none. There is no clear boundary between science and spiritual matters.

Bryson attended Drake University for two years before dropping out in 1972, deciding instead to backpack around Europe for four months. He returned to Europe the following year with a high-school friend, Matt Angerer (the pseudonymous Stephen Katz). Bryson wrote about some of his experiences from this trip in his book Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe.

Despite what Gould may think, science may inform morals, and dogma may inspire scientific inquiry. Mutual humility is well and good as a goal, but in the present, a mere cessation of hostilities seems to be too much to hope for.

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