Review: A Really Short History of Nearly Everything| 841 words
I recently finished Bill Bryson’s A Really Short History of Nearly Everything. This book wasn’t very good, and I wouldn’t recommend it. However, I learned some useful things both at the meta and object levels, which I will relay in bullet point form.
The book contains a number of factual inaccuracies, which makes all further “learnings” from the book suspect. The factual inaccuracies I was able to detect were numerical. A small number of spot checks about things like dates confirm their accuracy.
- Page 56 claims that “one cubic centimeter of air … will contain 27 million billion molecules.” 27 million billion is 10^15. 1 mol of air is 22.4 L and is 6 * 10^23. 22.4 L is 22,400 = 2 * 10^5 cubic centimeters. Dividing, a cubic centimeter of air should have 3 * 10^18 molecules, suggesting that the book is off by a factor of 1000.
- Pages 116 and 139 claim that humans have “10,000 trillion cells.” This number is equal to 10^16 cells. However, humans have about 4 * 10^13 cells.
The book is also strangely confidently false some things. I found this fact more frustrating than the numerical errors because those could just be incompetence, especially since the book is marketed as a book for children. One would think that book publishers would make sure that children’s books contained as few strictly false things as possible.
- I am mostly thinking about the section on space travel, which states on page 18 that “there’s no chance we could ever make a journey through the solar system” and “there’s absolutely no prospect that any human being will ever visit the edge of our solar system.”
- Another example is a claim that “by all the laws of probability, [proteins] shouldn’t even exist.” This isn’t quite the same thing because it’s probably just an exaggeration. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Old scientists sometimes spent years making small numbers of measurements, doing calculations, or collecting observations. This is probably because they mostly did science as a hobby and didn’t really have anything else fun to do.
This reminds me of a quote from Two Centuries of Productivity Growth in Computing;
According to John Coleman, president of Burroughs, “Bookkeeping, before the advent of the adding machine, was not an occupation for the flagging spirit or the wandering mind …. It required an extraordinary degree a capacity for sustained concentration, attention to detail, and a passion for accuracy.”
A French expedition in 1735 tried to measure the circumference of the Earth. They got chased out of towns by stones, died of fever, and were delayed by 8 months due to a permit problem. In order to make their measurements, they often had to wait weeks for the weather to clear. This expedition lasted 9.5 years. Shortly before the project ended, they received word that another team had made the relevant measurements.
The 1761 transit of Venus across the Sun would allow scientists to compute the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Over a hundred scientists were dispatched across the globe to make observations. Many were waylaid by war and shipwreck. Other’s equipment got broken. Jean Chappe spent months traveling to Siberia, only to find the last stretch blocked by swollen rivers. Guillaume Le Gentil traveled to India, but various setbacks meant that he was still at sea on the say of the transit, over a year after he had left. The set of scientists failed to collect enough information for the distance between the Earth and the Sun to be calculated.
- Luckily, transits come in pairs, so the next one in 1769 allowed for the determination that the distance between the Earth and the Sun is 93 million miles (150 billion meters).
- Henry Cavendish spent a year making trying to measure the weight of the Earth using incredibly precise measuring instruments.
- Mendel spent 8 years breeding his peas.
- Thomas Hunt Morgan spent 6 years trying to induce mutations in fruit flies.
- Milutin Milankovitch spent 20 years computing tables to see if wobbles in the Earth’s orbit corresponded with ice ages (they did).
I will close with some humorous tales.
- Reverend William Buckland, an early geologist, tried to eat his way through every animal in creation.
- The French naturalist Comte de Buffon stated that living things in America were inferior in nearly every way to those elsewhere. A troop of 20 soldiers was ordered to go shoot a moose to present to Buffon to prove that American living things were big and strong. In an effort to make it look more impressive, they also included a set of stag antlers.
- Relatedly, when the mammoth was first discovered, American naturalists tried to make it look as ferocious as possible. They overestimated its size by 6 times and gave it claws from a giant ground sloth