Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Short History of Nearly Everything

After his analyses of English and U.S. societies and into Shakespeare, Bill Bryson turns his eye on science in his book A Short History of Nearly Everything. Mr. Bryson was trained in humanities, but he still remembers a diagram from the fifth grade describes how the Earth looks inside if slice it to its core. What haunts him is the question: how the heck do the people know what is inside the Earth since nobody really dug a hole to its center? That led him to embark on a quest of three years of documentation about the history of natural sciences that resulted in this book. His write is entertaining as always and he shed light not only on the various scientific discoveries, but also on the many characters behind them. From well know figures (like Newton or Einstein) to less know people who were often unlucky to discover something but not be recognized for it or even worth be derided for it (like the Englishmen who had the intuition of the periodic nature of chemical elements a couple of years before Mendeleev, but was not taken seriously). It is a fascinating history that makes you fully appreciate the great distance that science evolved in the last 300 years. We are know taught in school in 12 years the gist of the work of thousands of people over hundreds of years, so no wonder it's so hard to get a grasp of it for many of us.
What amused me most was the attitude that was prevalent towards the end of the 19th century. After the discovery of gravitation, laws of mechanics and electricity, magnetism and thermodynamics and the principles of chemistry many people considered that the science discoveries were almost done, with only a few nuts and bolts remaining to be clarified to complete the picture of how nature works. As Mr. Bryson says: "In fact, of course, the world was about to enter a century of science where many people wouldn't understand anything and none would understand everything. Scientists would soon find themselves adrift in a bewildering realm of particles and antiparticles, where things pop in and out of existence in spans of time that make nanoseconds look plodding and uneventful, where everything is strange."
At least we are more humble know about science, especially that the two main theories from the 20th century, general relativity and quantum mechanics, are yet to be reconciled. The quest goes on!
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