Book of the year
THERE will be no better book published this year. This is, admittedly, a large and possibly foolish claim to make and not one I would normally venture but A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (Broadway Books) is the sort of book that nudges reviewers towards superlatives. Let me explain the statement I began this review with. There may well be extraordinary novels and books of poetry published this year, pathbreaking tomes on science and philosophy, brilliant new translations of the Iliad and the Upanishads, but I can quite confidently say that none of them will matter more to us as individuals (and not necessarily ones with any particular leaning towards books or good writing). Indeed, this is a book that could be profitably read by people who have never read a book in their lives but who are curious about why the sea is salty, why the sun feels warm on their backs, or, most crucially, why we are extraordinarily lucky to be here at all! In other words, this is a book that tells us everything we have ever pondered, even briefly, as we go about our everyday lives. It doesn't matter if you're not especially interested in science or trivia or the fate of the dinosaurs or the composition of the atmosphere or the fact that Yellowstone National Park is the world's largest active volcano (if it exploded one school of thought thinks it's ready to we'd go the way of the dinosaurs!), Bryson's genius is sure to get you hooked on to all these things in a trice.
We live in a blessed age, at least where writing about science is concerned. Never before have there been as many brilliant scientific minds with the gift of being able to explain science in lucid, interesting ways to readers who are, if not scientifically challenged, then at least impatient with the jargon-ridden prose science is normally expressed in. Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Robert Wright, Timothy Ferris, Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, Daniel Dennett, Richard Feynman, John Gribbin, Oliver Sacks, Edward Wilson is just a very short sampling of the scores of exceptional science writers who have been made available to us in the present era. For anyone who has had to deal with Darwin's masterwork On The Origin of the Species. or Newton's Principia this is an absolute bonanza, more than most of us (except people with a fanatical devotion to popular science writing) could cope with, but in a sense Bryson is if anything an even better bet for those of us who'd like to know more but are intimidated or reluctant to get involved with anything approaching an equation or math in our leisure reading. Here's why.
Bryson, as his millions of fans are aware, essentially made a name for himself as a travel writer who was very funny (my favourite is his first book, The Lost Continent) but he is also the author of an excellent little dictionary, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words. In none of his books did he even hint at what was coming in this book, except perhaps a writing style that's smooth, witty and an enormous pleasure to read. A few years ago, he writes in the preface to his book, on a plane trip, he began wondering about certain things he'd never really got a handle on, given the fact that his science text books had been so unexciting, something most of us can relate to. Anyway Bryson's realisation that he was almost wholly ignorant about many things on "the only planet (he) was ever going to live on" led to the writing of the book. Given the fact that he approached the project as a curious layperson trying to understand" astonishingly complex phenomena gives A Short History. the accessibility that even the best books by scientist-writers lack. Add to this Bryson's genius for breaking down the things he's writing about (no indigestible chunks of facts and figures here!) without resorting to oversimplification or spoon-feeding and you have a work of surpassing brilliance.
The book is divided into six parts, entitled "Lost in the Cosmos", "The Size of the Earth", "A New Age Dawns", "Dangerous Planet", "Life Itself" and "The Road to Us". Each part is further divided into chapters that explain, among other things, how the earth was created, what the Universe, stars, solar systems, black holes, quarks, comets and planets are all about, how old the Earth is, what the basic building blocks of all matter are, how gravity works, what the theory of relativity explains, how evolution took place, what lies beneath the waves, and what lies above us in the troposphere and stratosphere, the astonishing lives within the cell and so on and so forth. These explanations are enlivened by wonderfully drawn portraits of the scientists, eccentrics and egomaniacs who made the discoveries that give us some idea of ourselves and the world we live in. We know about the most famous of these geniuses such as Einstein, Galileo, Newton and Darwin but this book also celebrates dozens of path-breakers who died unsung. In addition, Bryson also fleshes out characters we thought we knew such as Newton, a brooding eccentric, who once inserted a needle into his eye just to see what would happen. Other scientists deliberately poisoned themselves or their loved ones, blew up fortunes, plotted against each other, all in the interests of science. If this was all the book contained it would be celebrated as masterpiece. But I haven't even begun to expand on its greatest attribute, the writing style. I could quote entire chapters to show just how exceptional Bryson's achievement is, but I'll limit myself to just one, his ruminations on the atom: "The great Caltech physicist Richard Feynman once observed that if you had to reduce scientific history to one important statement it would be "All things are made of atoms". They are everywhere and they constitute everything. Look around you. It is all atoms. Not just the solid things like walls and tables and sofas, but the air in between. And they are there in numbers that you really cannot conceive.
"The basic working arrangement of atoms is the molecule" (from the Latin for "little mass"). A molecule is simply two or more atoms working together in a more or less stable arrangement: add two atoms of hydrogen to one of oxygen and you have a molecule of water. Chemists tend to think in terms of molecules rather than elements in much the way that writers tend to think in terms of words and not letters, so it is molecules they count, and these are numerous to say the least. At sea level, at a temperature of 32° Fahrenheit, one cubic centimeter of air (that is, a space about the size of a sugar cube) will contain 45 billion billion molecules. And they are in every single cubic centimeter you see around you. Think how many cubic centimeters there are in the world outside your window how many sugar cubes it would take to fill that view. Then think how many it would take to build a universe. Atoms, in short, are very abundant.
"They are also fantastically durable. Because they are so long lived, atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name. (The personages have to be historical, apparently, as it takes the atoms some decades to become thoroughly redistributed; however much you may wish it, you are not yet one with Elvis Presley.
"So we are all reincarnations though short-lived ones. When we die our atoms will disassemble and move off to find new uses elsewhere as part of a leaf or other human being or drop of dew. Atoms, however, go on practically forever. Nobody actually knows how long an atom can survive, but according to Martin Rees it is probably about 1,035 years a number so big that even I am happy to express it in notation".
As with atoms, so with pretty much everything else scientific you've ever wondered about but were too intimidated or too lazy to enquire about. This is a book that deserves to be No.1 on every bestseller list in the world.
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As I was writing this review, I received word that a cherished friend had passed away recently. V Abdulla was a stalwart in the world of Indian publishing and a noted translator and reviewer besides. I first met him when I became a publisher 15 years ago, and thereafter a meeting at the Presidency Club was a fixed point on my itinerary every time I visited Madras. An exceptional career at Orient Longman during his active years as a publisher, and thereafter many years as advisor and friend to legions of publishers and editors were just some of Abdulla's contributions to the publishing scene. As an editor and translator, his lifelong immersion in Malayalam literature gave him a unique vantage point from which to pick, promote and translate the best of that language's literature into English.
At the time of his death, he was working on an anthology of Malayalam short stories along with another gifted translator, R.E Asher. Sadly, he will not be around to see the publication of the book that is due out at the end of the year, but it'll be a small memorial to his great gifts.
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