This month's selection, A Short History of Nearly Everything, is the latest offering from one of Shawn's and my favorite writers, Bill Bryson. It's a fascinating departure from many of his earlier works, though it definitely benefits from the author's quirky sense of humor and engaging way of describing subjects that catch his attention and interest. Consider this excerpt from the chapter titled “Good-Bye:”
“In the early 1680s, at just about the time that Edmond Halley and his friends Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke were settling down in a London coffeehouse and embarking on the casual wager that would result eventually in Isaac Newton's Principia, Henry Cavendish's weighing of the Earth, and many of the other inspired and commendable undertakings that have occupied us for much of the past four hundred pages, a rather less desirable milestone was being passed on the island of Mauritius, far out in the Indian Ocean some eight hundred miles off the east coast of Madagascar.
There, some forgotten sailor or sailor's pet was harrying to death the last of the dodos, the famously flightless bird whose dim but trusting nature and lack of leggy zip made it a rather irresistible target for bored young tars on shore leave. Millions of years of peaceful isolation had not prepared it for the erratic and deeply unnerving behavior of human beings.
We don't know precisely the circumstances, or even year, attending the last moments of the last dodo, so we don't know which arrived first, a world that contained a Principia or one that had no dodos, but we do know that they happened at more or less the same time. You would be hard pressed, I would submit, to find a better pairing of occurrences to illustrate the divine and felonious nature of the human being – a species of organism that is capable of unpicking the deepest secrets of the heavens while at the same time pounding into extinction, for no purpose at all, a creature the never did us any harm and wasn't even remotely capable of understanding what we were doing to it as we did it. Indeed, dodos were so spectacularly short on insight, it is reported, that if you wished to find all the dodos in a vicinity you had only to catch one and set it to squawking, and all the others would waddle along to see what was up.”
Bryson attempts in his latest work to understand everything that has transpired from the Big Bang to the rise of civilization – a tall order, indeed. Or, as he himself puts it, “... how we went from there being nothing at all to there being something, and then how a little of that something turned into us, and also what happened in between and since.” In A Short History, Bryson takes subjects such as chemistry, astronomy, particle physics, geology, and paleontology, and helps make them comprehensible to the average person. His travels through space time are profound, entertaining, supremely clear, often funny, and always compelling. Science has never been more involving, and the world has never seemed fuller of wonder and delight – be sure to read all about it!
Copyright © 2003, S. Halversen.
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