by Marty Demarest

Popular scientific writing has always occupied a unique niche in the development of human knowledge. The real science -- the obscure, heady stuff -- is usually a mystery to all but a select few. It has regularly fallen to those tireless advocates of salvation, the laity, to help us understand how the mystical truths relate to our lives. While Bill Bryson isn't attempting to explain any single theory in particular, he is trying to give us a broad grounding in his newest book, the aptly titled A Short History of Nearly Everything.

His subjects range from bleeding-edge research on the origins of the universe, to full-fledged speculation about where we're headed. He is absolutely catholic in his choice of theories. He summarizes scientific observations without descending into technical minutiae. And he brings a healthy dose of reality - the scientific probability that science is keenly unaware of a lot that goes on - to the mix. "We are astoundingly, sumptuously, radiantly ignorant of life beneath the seas," he reminds us in one chapter.

What Bryson seems to be aiming for is a humanist reading of scientific thought. He wants us to marvel with him at the presence of Yellowstone's steaming geysers - evidence that the whole park is a super-volcano contained by a fence. He wants us to enjoy the exploits of characters like Isaac Newton, who made some of the greatest theoretical deductions of mankind -- before misplacing them. His desire to terrify us with the clinical realities of microorganisms contrasts with his graceful acknowledgement that we all, even informed writers, tend to anthropomorphize nature. For example, he defines fog as "after all, nothing more than a cloud that lacks the will to fly."

It's this delight in the world, and in the way that we perceive and talk about it (for what else is science but a way of talking about things?) that holds A Short History together. Bryson's topic is unwieldy. But by following his nose, he brings a sort of order to the chaos of existence. In an era when everything is described, in fiction and fact alike, with either barren objectivity or moral judgment, it's heavenly to have a guide who trips across the universe as lightly as a blissed-out traveler exploring a new village. The project of his discussion conceals no greater agenda than human curiosity - the same force that gives us knowledge in the face of nature.

Publication date: 09/04/03

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