Tag Archives: Bill Bryson

Book: Chasing the Sun

Chasing the Sun
Sun imagery is everywhere if you look for it.

Epic cross-section of all of human culture. Fact-dense.
680 pages, ★★★★★

It’s so hot in Australia right now. The sun melted my chocolate yesterday. Today, my trusty iPod displayed the word “Temperature” instead of a map, before promptly shutting itself down in the car.

It’s 34°C in Australia, and even hotter in the car. I’m Chasing the Sun.

Chasing the Sun was thus a very apt book choice. It dances through science, but weaves in a lot of culture as well. British doors have sunrise-shaped windows. The Statue of Liberty wears a sun-shaped hat. Images as diverse as Jesus, Charlie Chaplin and Chairman Mao have all personified the sun in some way to imply power (be it spiritual, comical or political). Twenty countries currently have suns in their flags, and even the swastika was originally a line-drawn representation of the sun! According to Google Music, 2,500 copyrighted songs have been written about the sun (how many can you think of?), and nearly 500 trademarks feature the sun in their logo. The sun permeates our lives in ways that we are seldom aware.

This book is therefore relevant to everyone.

Like the sun itself, Chasing the Sun is dense. Reading it, I felt like one of the zillions of photons that takes 150,000 years to permeate the sun’s dense core, before finally reaching the surface (i.e. finishing the book) and zooming out at the speed of light. I read my next book very fast.

Author Richard Cohen is loaded with theories, such as Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, Daisy World, the evolution of ancient calendar systems, and natural therapies involving tomatoes (which protect against sunburn but get sunburned easily themselves) and TB (which was alleviated somewhat by sunlight exposure). Best of all, he touches on the theory that solar maxima (peaks in the natural fluctuation of our sun’s intensity) coincide with peaks of ‘hot-headed’ human activity. Certainly, the upheavals of 1905, 1917, 1948 and 1989 coincided with solar maxima. Coincidence, perhaps?

Richard Cohen’s work is in the same category as Bill Bryson, but is much more fact-laden. On one occasion, (on page 528) he even corrects Bill Bryson’s math! He balances science and culture in a way only paralleled by Arnold Taylor’s The Dance of Air & Sea. This book took 8 years to write, involved research trips to 17 countries and includes input from dozens of world-leading academics. Don’t let this much wisdom pass you by. Everyone should read this book. ★★★★★

Book: At Home (A Short History of Private Life)

Bill Bryson's latest tome on my luscious red bed

Paints a very vivid picture of the year 1851.
497 pages, ★★

At Home is another classic Bill Bryson page-turner. Reading this, I feel like I’m skimming the surface of something much, much deeper. I admire the overwhelming amount of reading that give Bill Bryson the depth of knowledge for which he’s famed. He writes with subtle, but reassuring references to his previous books, particularly A Short History of Everything (much of which is kindly restrained in the footnotes).

At Home is really a chronicle of Western life in 1851, only loosely connected by the theme of “home”. It’s a vast compilation of distantly-connected facts (the same names appear sporadically). He starts (of course) with the Great Exhibition, covers Darwin’s life story and the chain-reaction of invention that followed the introduction of fixed tithes (and, arguably, fuelled the Industrial Revolution).

At Home reminds us that quality is only linked with price within a particular commodity; whereas the quality of types of commodities is seldom reflected in its current price. For example, servants ate lobster almost daily; and many complained to their masters (even signed a lobster-limiting contract) to reduce the amount they were fed. Workers in the 21st century would be delighted to have lobster at work, daily. There are likely dozens of cheap “undervalued” products with us today (like 19th-century lobster) which our descendants will envy us for taking for granted… (I’m guessing lotus and yam will be two of said products).

As far as descriptions of 19th century Britain go, At Home contrasts starkly with Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Whereas Bill Bryson uses flattery and wit to describe Victorian Britain as a time of marvel, of invention, and of social transformation, Karl Marx instead depicted many a capitalist scumbag throttling his own parliament to repeal laws and squeeze every ounce of profit out of his disposable child labourers. This conflict with Karl Marx was resolved in less than one page in the penultimate chapter, “Nursery”, where Bill Bryson writes,

“Marx, meanwhile, constantly denounced the bourgeoisie but lived as bourgeois a life as be could manage, sending his daughters to private schools…”

I could be pedantic and prolong the debate with contradictory quotes such as (“even some servants had servants”; and “Marx, too, extorted like a capitalist”) but I don’t feel like doing so. This book is too delightful a glimpse of Victorian history to get wound up in class struggle, morality and the hypocrisies of rich intellectuals. Bill Bryson reminds us that almost everyone in the Victorian age was slightly eccentric anyway; so we should appreciate their work, but not try too hard to understand their thoughts. Eccentricity is genius disguised.

I’m looking forward to Bryson’s next book on the future of human civilization… this is hinted at the end of At Home. This book will be of enormous benefit to anyone who’s read Das Kapital; for it will give them a wider picture of Victorian Britain. The Victorians affected all of our lives beyond comprehension. Anyone with an appreciation for anything will enjoy this book. ★★★★

Book: A Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything, contrasted by my very red bed

Natural Sciences Bible.
Rekindles a passion for science.

536 pages, ★★★★★

Reading this book felt like taking a guided tour of my undergraduate years in Cambridge. We saw all the highlights.

Rather than reminding me of terrible lectures I’d rather forget (Powerpoint recitals dull enough to repel even the most enthusiastic of students), this book’s lucid prose and clear character descriptions reminded me of people and situations, which I would very much like to remember. Reading this, I thought of subjects I loved (and people I loved) and found new areas of science I wanted to explore. If terrible teachers and Powerpoint slides killed your passion for science, then this book will certainly rekindle it.

A Short History of Nearly Everything is a Natural Sciences bible. It covers almost everything from the Big Bang to the dodo’s extinction. It devotes around one-third of each short chapter to explaining scientific theories. Bill Bryson does so with an unlikely combination of humour, metaphor and 100% accuracy. The other two-thirds of each chapter describe how such scientific understandings evolved through history. Bill Bryson’s descriptions of scientists leave a memorable impression (Planck was often unlucky; Linneaus was obsessed with sex; Watson is unpleasant).

Their stories are told in logical order from smallest to largest, rather than in order of their discoveries:

  • metaphysics & theoretical physics
  • physics
  • chemistry
  • astronomy
  • geology
  • climatology
  • cell biology
  • evolution
  • taxonomy
  • palaeontology
  • anthropology (a little)

A Short History of Nearly Everything is beautifully-written. Information flows out of this book like water. I’m so pleased to find an alternative to Cambridge University’s inept teaching technique (incidentally, this is also the Chinese teaching technique) of compressing hundreds of nuggets of seemingly incongruent information into Powerpoint slides for recital; in the hope that students will later memorise them for exams. Bill Bryson’s writing style makes learning feel pleasant, even enlightening in places. Bill Bryson demonstrates reassuringly that science can be taught to human beings in lucid prose, not just to undergraduate machines using bullet-points and diagrams.

This book opens doors. I want to read these themes next:

Climatology. There was little focus on CO2 in this book, but Bill Bryson did err on the side of political correctness in the few places he mentioned it. I’d love to step away from the hot-headed Warmists vs. Skeptics fight and learn more about the long-term history of Earth’s climate. This book inspired me to read more about Milankovitch cycles and atmospheric flux.

(There’s still a lot of misunderstanding surrounding CO2, which was put down wonderfully by Cool It. Despite that, otherwise respectable newspapers still churn out crap like this.)

Special and general relativity. String theory, time travel, length contractions and time dilations are intrinsically interesting. I’d love to learn this, and figure out how to explain it in simple terms to inquisitive students.

Anthropology. The obvious sequel to A Short History of Nearly Everything would be Collapse by Jared Diamond. However, I’m also hungry for modern anthropology (from the last 10,000 years). I want to read about phylomemetics: a niche subject which quantifies the evolution of languages and religion… a passion of mine which was rekindled only by reading this book.

This book bridges science and liberal arts beautifully. It makes you think, makes you laugh, and above all, helps you to discover new areas of interest. Use this book to reassure yourself that science isn’t just for nerds. Everyone should read this book. ★★★★★