Brownian thought space

Cognitive science, mostly, but more a sometimes structured random walk about things.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Bill Bryson's Brush with Science

I recently finished reading Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, and here is a 'review' (Gamespot style) The Good: A very good introduction to the nature of nature, specially the nature of our little planet. Bryson-style writing, occasionally guffawable. The Bad: Waaaay too many facts, and very little to actually understand the science behind it. Very little about how problem-solving gets done in science. Few scientists and far too many boffins and nerds dot the landscape.
I loved the older B.B. Books like Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe. So, when I saw a book that looked like he was taking on all of Science, naturally I went and bought it. aSHoNE starts off with the kind of stuff I was expecting: BB creates a childhood image of himself as a child peering into a scientific textbook, captivated by the image of the earth with its innards exposed, and trying to understand how on earth (sic) anyone could know that. "Here", I thought, "is a book that will tell me answers to questions like, 'How do they know what goes on inside an atom?', and will be funny!". Well, at least there is some of both. There are some funny stories and there is some of how science is done. But what you really walk away with is a collection of semi-isolated facts and any number of doomsday scenarios. Based on hard fact, to be sure, and many of these stories are chilling in their telling. But this book doesn't really tell you how things get done, and there is too much of "... and then Stevenson used the well known principle of Blatchard Von Prissley, invented to understand the eyestalks of juvenile snails, and applied it brilliantly to the Neanderthal molar to show that ..." kind of stuff that is not really fun. Then there is the matter of the scientists. Most scientists are not people you could write funny stories about. Rather, they are no more or less interesting (in my opinion) than are gaffers, exotic dancers, bricklayers or airline crew members. So, of course, BB zeroes in mostly on the oddballs. But, another way of looking at it is that it is BB who is the interesting person, who, upon meeting the dullest of scientists, has an eye for those quirks that make fantastic storytelling. I'm not sure. All in all, it's a book to read mainly cos it's written by BB.

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