Thursday, April 21, 2005

Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything

...Is the other reason posting has been sporadic. Simply put, it is possibly the best general science book ever written. Funny, clear, and comprehensive. To give it a fair treatment would be impossible, but some quotes that are simply too good not to share:

On the Big Bang (p. 10):
In a single blinding pulse, a moment of glory much too swift and expansive for any form of words, the singularity assumes heavenly dimensions, space beyond conception. In the first lively second (a second that many cosmologists will devote careers to shaving into ever-finer wafers) is produced gravity and the other forces that govern physics. In less than a minute the universe is a million billion miles across and growing fast. There is a lot of heat now, ten billion degrees of it, enough to begin the nuclear reactions that create the lighter elements - principally hydrogen and helium, with a dash (about one atome in a hundred million) of lithium. In three minutes, 98 percent of all the matter there is or will ever be has been produced. We have a universe. It is a place of the most wondrous and gratifying possibility, and beautiful, too. And it was all done in about the time it takes to make a sandwich.
On early geologists (p. 68):
The field attracted many extraodinary figures, not the least the aforementioned Murchsion, who spent the first thirty or so years of his life galloping after foxes, converting aeronautically challenged birds into puffs of drifting feathers with buckshot, and showing no mental agiltiy whatever beyond that needed to read The Times or play a hand of cards.
On the brevity of human history (p. 337):
Perhaps an even more effective way of grasping our extreme recentness as a part of this 4.5-billion-year-old picture is to stretch your arms to their fullest extent and imagine that width as the entire history of the Earth. On this scale, according to John McPhee in Basin and Range, the distance from the fingertips of one hand to the wrist of the other is Precambrian. All of complex life is in one hand, "and in a single stroke with a medium-grained nail file you could eradicate human history."

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