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A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
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Jan 14, 2011

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Though it must be granted the proper categorizing as "popular science" and is thus immune to critique of its technical details, the book—in a most unsatisfying way—often decides that it would rather be a collection of short biographies; in fact, I'd hazard a bet that it introduces more historical figures than scientific terminologies, though the totals are indeed frustratingly similar. Often, Bryson would switch from discussing a legitimately interesting topic to using the next several pages for exposition regarding the minor human squabbles (many of which seem at least partially exaggerated) that led to a particular discovery.

A ringing motif is the outcry against sensationalism, one which is hypocritically disregarded throughout. An unsavory companion to this feature is a sense of patronization; surely it is to be expected frequently in a science book for the general public, but
"... sea levels would rise by two hundred feet—the height of a twenty-story building"
is borderline insulting.

Regarding contemporary accuracy, the only glaring miscue throughout is Bryson's incorrectly referring to one of the nucleotide bases as thiamine; vitamin B, it turns out, contributes absolutely zero to the structure of DNA. Looking at the book retrospectively, however, is perhaps the greatest joy I came away from it with: several dozen times the author must sully our hunger for understanding with "we just don't know". It is a grand testament to the exponential speed of modern discovery that the scientific ignorance of a book published just seven years ago could be so blatant.

Altogether, A Short History of Nearly Everything (while hardly living up to the last in fields other than those which led to human life) is a casual ride through the many facets of science that enjoyably breaks the potential monotony of other, more focused works, while simultaneously leaving one with the feeling that they've learned far more about ancient arguments and discrepancies amongst the thinkers of centuries past.

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Kenny Bell Another question though, how do they know that their method of dating a substance is reliable and not just some random numbers that pop up. Here's an excerpt from the book about how we got radioactive dating used to date the earth:

"He noticed that in any sample of radio active material, it always took the same amount of time for half the sample to decay- the celebrated half-life-and that this steady, reliable rate decat could be used as a clock.By calculating backwards from how much radiation a material had now and how swiftly it was decaying, you could work out its age. He tested a piece of pitchblende, the principal ore of uranium, and found it to be 700million years old."

How do they know this is accurate?

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