June 17, 2004
Bill Bryson on the History of Nearly Everything – including Max Planck and J. Willard Gibbs

A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is Bill Bryson's latest book, needs no plug from a mere blogger like me. But I am going to plug it anyway. I am in the middle of reading it, and am enjoying it hugely.

BrysonEverything.jpgI don't just admire the book itself; I further hugely admire Bill Bryson's decision to write it in the first place. This decision now makes perfect sense, but when Bryson first embarked on this project he must have felt that he was taking quite a risk.

After all, this man is not a science writer; he's a travel writer.

But think about it for a moment. How do you now write a book about the history of science? Anyone attempting this faces huge problems. There is just so damn much of it, for starters. And then, there is the problem that however hard you try to explain it all, there are great chunks of it that just won't make sense to most people, no matter what you say, and no matter how perfectly you may understand it all yourself.

Above all, books that attempt to popularise science can be deadly dull. All those abstractions. All those fancy semi- or in-comprehensible ideas and diagrams and graphs and long, long words. How do you keep your reader's attention?

When you think about it, an expert travel writer is the ideal person to tackle all these problems. Rabitting on about foreign countries you have visited is, notoriously, a habit which can empty rooms which were at first jam packed with your most devoted friends. Successful travel writers have mastered the subtle art of not being travel bores, because they had to, to even get published. They know how to sprinkle engaging anecdotes into their narrative. They know how to enliven the journey with intriguing little trips down entertaining byways. They know how to keep you interested and amused and diverted.

Faced with the fact that they don't fully understand the place that they are writing about, they don't panic and treat this as a scandalous anomaly. On the contrary, they expect to be somewhat confused, and to be able to tell only some of the story. The Innocent Abroad is just the guy to tell you as much as you are ever going to get about General Relativity or the nuances of the Big Bang, and such a guide to the territory can supply further insights into the nature of science that a more seasoned observer of science might be too close to observe. So Bryson is the ideal man for this job.

It also helps enormously that the job is also just what Bryson himself has been needing.

Frankly, Bryson's books have been (a) that fantastically, superbly, insanely great book about small town America, called The Lost Continent (what was insanely great about it for me was probably that it was the first Bryson book I read), and then (b) several other travel books which are pretty great but not quite as great as The Lost Continent. Oh yes, and (c) there was that (those?) quite good book(s?) about the history of language. All good stuff. But, frankly, the travel books in particular were becoming something of a stale formula. With, as I say, the wisdom of hindsight, we can see that in Science, Bryson has at last discovered a new continent worthy of his whole attention. With Science, the Bryson formula is renewed and reinvigorated.

Risk? New, unexplored territory? A step into the unknown and a stab in the dark? This is exactly what Bryson has actually been missing for some time.

On the front cover, John Waller of the Guardian says that this book is a great "rough guide" to science, which shows that Bryson's publishers also entirely understand the travel guide nature of his achievement, and the appropriateness of this way of tackling the subject.

So anyway, here's a chunk from A Short History of Everything that struck me as especially entertaining.

In 1875, when a young German in Kiel named Max Planck was deciding whether to devote his life to mathematics or to physics, he was urged most heartily not to choose physics because the breakthroughs had all been made there. The coming century, he was assured, would be one of consolidation and refinement, not revolution. Planck didn't listen. He studied theoretical physics and threw himself body and soul into work on entropy, a process at the heart of thermodynamics, which seemed to hold much promise for an ambitious young man. In 1891 he produced his results and learned to his dismay that the important work on entropy had in fact been done already, in this instance by a retiring scholar at Yale University named J. Willard Gibbs.

Gibbs is perhaps the most brilliant person most people have never heard of. Modest to the point of near-invisibility, he passed virtually the whole of his life, apart from three years spent studying in Europe, within a three-block area bounded by his house and the Yale campus in New Haven, Connecticut. For his first ten years at Yale he didn't even bother to draw a salary. (He had independent means.) From 1871, when he joined the university as a professor, to his death in 1903, his courses attracted an average of slightly over one student a semester. His written work was difficult to follow and employed a private form of notation that many found incomprehensible. But buried among his arcane formulations were insights of the loftiest brilliance.

In 1875-8, Gibbs produced a series of papers, collectively titled On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances, which dazzlingly elucidated the thermodynamic principles of, well, nearly everything –
'gases, mixtures, surfaces, solids, phase changes ... chemical reactions, electrochemical cells, sedimentation, and osmosis', to quote William H. Cropper. In essence, what Gibbs did was show that thermodynamics didn't apply simply to heat and energy at the sort of large and noisy scale of the steam engine, but was also present and influential at the atomic level of chemical reactions. Gibbs's Equilibrium has been called 'the Principia of thermodynamics', but for reasons that defy speculation Gibbs chose to publish these landmark observations in the Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, a journal that managed to be obscure even in Connecticut, which is why Planck did not hear of him until too late.

I can't resist adding this next bit, about Planck, which is only a footnote. I have read a lot of scientific popularisations over the years, but this was totally new to me:

Planck was often unlucky in life. His beloved first wife died early, in 1909, and the younger of his two sons was killed in the First World War. He also had twin daughters whom he adored. One died giving birth. The surviving twin went to look after the baby and fell in love with her sister's husband. They married and two years later she died in childbirth. In 1944, when Planck was eighty-five, an Allied bomb fell on his house and he lost everything – papers, diaries, a lifetime of accumulations. The following year his surviving son was caught in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and executed.

How's that for bad luck?

It helps greatly that you really feel that Bryson has done his preparatory reading really thoroughly, and that all these out-of-the-way facts that he has dug up really are facts. I certainly haven't spotted any wrong notes so far.

I've only begun to enumerate the many virtues of this book, which is only appropriate since I have only begun to read it. As I read on, I will doubtless have further praise to heap upon it.

But now that Bryson has finished this book, what next? How about a history of art? Maybe that's a bit too obvious a follow up. But I would love to read it, as I'm sure would millions of others.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:49 PM
Category: LiteratureScience