Back to school with Bill Bryson
Learning what your teachers didn't tell you
Think for a moment of the human brain as a computer, albeit a very primitive one, perhaps a Pentium "negative four." There is a finite, and severely limited, amount of permanent memory available, after which new data vanishes almost as soon as it has entered. So, despite the fact that it would be handy to know where you left your keys, or the exact date of your wedding anniversary, this is not to be, for your mind is filled to the brim with things like the Pythagorean theorem, or an endless series of dates (1066, Battle of Hastings; 1215, Magna Carta; 1959, Hawaii's statehood), or in my case, the second verse of "Louie, Louie" in its entirety. Somehow, with the exception of some basic English language skills (don't ask me to diagram a sentence), I seem to have forgotten pretty much everything I learned in school after the fourth grade.
This is normal, according to author Bill Bryson, who often wonders "Why didn't they teach me this in school, or more to the point, why couldn't teachers make it interesting?" Little did he realize that this simple question would occupy four years of his life in the production of his new book A Short History of Nearly Everything. "I had the sense that I ought to know a bit about how the world works," Bryson says. "What I had always considered to be 'dull stuff' must in some way be interesting after all."
And so it began, a mammoth work on virtually every topic you can think of (and some you can't pronounce): the Big Bang, dinosaurs, global warming, geology, Einstein, the Curies, evolution, leaded gasoline, atomic theory, quarks, volcanoes, chromosomes, chlorofluorocarbons, Ediacarian organisms, the Moho discontinuity, DNA, Charles Darwin and a gajillion other things, all duly annotated and footnoted. Oh, and did I mention this book is funny? "One of my favorite anecdotes in the book was about the contempt in which physicists hold scientists from other fields," Bryson says, laughing. "The Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli was floored when his wife left him for a chemist. 'Had she taken a bullfighter I would have understood, but a chemist?' "
Indeed, it is the human side of the equation that makes A Short History of Nearly Everything so accessible. In one memorable instance, Bryson spins the ironic tale of Thomas Midgley, an Ohio inventor responsible for two of the most devastating scientific developments of all time, leaded gasoline and chlorofluorocarbons. Having contributed so profoundly to the shortened lifespans of many of his fellow humans, Midgley's life was itself cut short by another of his inventions, a pulley-operated adjustable bed in which he became entangled and strangled to death. (I don't know about you, but that's the sort of detail that will always keep Thomas Midgley in the forefront of my mind.)
Bryson seems to intuit just when he is getting too deep for the average reader, and rescues those close to the edge: "The upshot of all this is that we live in a universe whose age we can't quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances we don't altogether know, filled with matter we can't quite identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don't truly understand. And on that rather unsettling note, let's return to planet Earth and consider something that we do understand though by now you perhaps won't be surprised to hear that we don't understand it completely and what we do understand we haven't understood for long . . . "
By comparison to, say, A Walk in the Woods, Bryson's 1999 book about his travels on the Appalachian trail, A Short History of Nearly Everything seems something of a monumental undertaking. "This was more 'huge' than I had ever budgeted for," Bryson admits. "In September, when the book was supposed to be ready, I knew I needed at least another month. In December it still wasn't ready. In January I said 'It will never be finished; that's simply all there is to it.' In fact, when my publisher took it, I was still writing. It's the sort of book that would never get finished unless you just agreed to stop." In the end, it took four years. "My normal writing work day is more or less equal to the school day, at least when life is not in hysterics," notes Bryson. "Of course, there was some travel, and huge amounts of research to do before and during the writing."
As many of his loyal readers know, Bryson was born in the States but lived in England for a number of years before settling for a time in a small New Hampshire town. His accent is pronounced, yet somehow elusive, with a hint of English lilt and perhaps a taste of Americanese here and there. "We moved back to the States for what was supposed to be five years; we've now stayed eight," Bryson explains. "I have a daughter graduating from high school this year, and a son starting middle school, so we have decided to move back to England." A political statement in these troubled times? "No, not really. It's more that the timing is right. I think that everyone should be compelled to spend at least a year in another country. It would help to dispel the ignorance of others' customs, and perhaps increase our tolerance for people who are different from us. We're not all so very different. Plus it can be great fun." And how are housing prices in England compared to New Hampshire? Bryson deadpans, "You'd swallow your tongue!"
Asked if he has a new project in the works, Bryson says no, rather emphatically. "Or rather, recovery," he adds. "The move back to England is on the horizon, of course. And, this is the first time in years that I have had the luxury of reading something that I don't have to write about. I am reading a William Boyd novel, and a wonderful biography of Samuel Pepys by Claire Tomlin. On top of that, I have acquired what seems as if it will be a lifelong interest in scientific publications. There is so much to learn. Science is huge!"