Monday, March 13, 2017

Review: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Why would you hire a travel writer to pen a science book? Because he's Bill Bryson and you could put his name on the phone book and it would sell shedloads. Otherwise this book has little to recommend it. Sure, he writes with his customary engaging joviality, but as he says himself in the introduction, there are plenty of proper scientists writing engaging and interesting books for the layman, so quite why he felt the need to write his own book to counter the dull texts of his 1960s schooldays escapes me.

This negative impression isn't helped by finding a huge, glaring error in just the second paragraph:
"Protons are so small that a little dib of ink like the dot on this ‘i’ can hold something in the region of 500,000,000,000 of them, rather more than the number of seconds contained in half a million years."
That's more like five million days. It takes a couple of minutes with a calculator to work that one out, but neither Bryson nor his editor could be bothered. To quote from the Acknowledgements:
"Goodness knows how many other inky embarrassments may lurk in these pages yet, but it is thanks to Dr Tattersall and all of those whom I about to mention that there aren't many hundreds more."
At this point Bryson should have realised that he'd written a book whose only value would be to his own pension pot and his publisher's bottom line. I can understand him being reluctant to jettison three years of work, but considering he'd made a similar horlicks with Mother Tongue a few years earlier – on a subject where he might more reasonably claim to be qualified – one wonders why he started the book in the first place.

Sure, you can read it for the easy, witty writing, but it's distracting when you know you can't trust any of the facts. It's still the first chapter and we have: "with Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea … Pluto would be … about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn't be able to see it anyway". Even if it's a petit pois and I'm not wearing my glasses, I can still see Pluto on that scale.

If the errors are so obvious to me (and my degree is in Medieval History), what hope is there when it comes to the more technical science? Maybe things improve, but after barely an hour of reading I'm ready to give up.

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