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A Short History of Nearly Everything Essay

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A Short History of Nearly Everything is a popular science book by American author Bill Bryson that explains some areas of science, using a style of language which aims to be more accessible to the general public than many other books dedicated to the subject. It was one of the bestselling popular science books of 2005 in the UK, selling over 300,000 copies.[1]

instead describing general sciences such as chemistry, paleontology, astronomy, and particle physics. In it, he explores time from the Big Bang to the discovery of quantum mechanics, via evolution and geology. Bryson tells the story of science through the stories of the people who made the discoveries, such as Edwin Hubble, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein.


Bill Bryson wrote this book because he was dissatisfied with his scientific knowledge — that was, not much at all. He writes that science was a distant, unexplained subject at school. Textbooks and teachers alike did not ignite the passion for knowledge in him, mainly because they never delved in the whys, hows, and whens. “It was as if [the textbook writer] wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable.” —Bryson, on the state of science books used within his school.[2] [edit]

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Bryson describes graphically and in layperson’s terms the size of the universe, and that of atoms and subatomic particles. He then explores the history of geology and biology, and traces life from its first appearance to today’s modern humans, placing emphasis on the development of the modern Homo sapiens. Furthermore, he discusses the possibility of the Earth’s being struck by a meteor, and reflects on human capabilities of spotting a meteor before it impacts the Earth, and the extensive damage that such an event would cause. He also focuses on some of the most recent destructive disasters of volcanic origin in the history of our planet, including Krakatoa and Yellowstone National Park.

A large part of the book is devoted to relating humorous stories about the scientists behind the research and discoveries and their sometimes eccentric behaviours. Bryson also speaks about modern scientific views on human effects on the Earth’s climate and livelihood of other species, and the magnitude of natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and the mass extinctions caused by some of these events. The book does, however, contain a number of factual errors and inaccuracies.[3] An illustrated edition of the book was released in November 2005.[4] A few editions in Audiobook form are also available, including an abridged version read by the author, and at least three unabridged versions. [edit]

Awards and reviews

The book received generally favourable reviews, with reviewers citing the book as informative, well written and highly entertaining.[5][6][7] However, some feel that the contents might be uninteresting to an audience with prior knowledge of history or the sciences.[8] In 2004, this book won Bryson the prestigious Aventis Prize for best general science book.[9] Bryson later donated the GBP£10,000 prize to the Great Ormond Street Hospital children’s charity.[10] In 2005, the book won the EU Descartes Prize for science communication.[11] It was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for the same year.

Unremitting scientific effort over the past 300 years has yielded an astonishing amount of information about the world we inhabit. By rights we ought to be very impressed and extremely interested. Unfortunately many of us simply aren’t. Far from attracting the best candidates, science is proving a less and less popular subject in schools. And, with a few notable exceptions, popular books on scientific topics are a rare bird in the bestseller lists. Bill Bryson, the travel-writing phenomenon, thinks he knows what has gone wrong. The anaemic, lifeless prose of standard science textbooks, he argues, smothers at birth our innate curiosity about the natural world. Reading them is a chore rather than a voyage of discovery. Even books written by leading scientists, he complains, are too often clogged up with impenetrable jargon. Just like the alchemists of old, scientists have a regrettable tendency to “vaile their secrets with mistie speech”. Science, John Keats sulked, “will clip an Angel’s wings, / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line.” Bryson turns this on its head by blaming the messenger rather than the message.

Robbing nature of its mystery is what he thinks most science books do best. But, unlike Keats, he doesn’t believe that this is at all necessary. We may be living in societies less ready to believe in magic, miracles or afterlives, but the sublime remains. Rather as Richard Dawkins has argued, Bryson insists that the results of scientific study can be wondrous and very often are so. The trick is to write about them in a way that makes them comprehensible without crushing nature’s mystique. Bryson provides a lesson in how it should be done. The prose is just as one would expect – energetic, quirky, familiar and humorous. Bryson’s great skill is that of lightly holding the reader’s hand throughout; building up such trust that topics as recondite as atomic weights, relativity and particle physics are shorn of their terrors.

The amount of ground covered is truly impressive. From the furthest reaches of cosmology, we range through time and space until we are looking at the smallest particles. We explore our own planet and get to grips with the ideas, first of Newton and then of Einstein, that allow us to understand the laws that govern it. Then biology holds centre-stage, heralding the emergence of big-brained bipeds and Charles Darwin’s singular notion as to how it all came about. Crucially, this hugely varied terrain is not presented as a series of discrete packages. Bryson made his name writing travelogues and that is what this is. A single, coherent journey, woven together by a master craftsman. The book’s underlying strength lies in the fact that Bryson knows what it’s like to find science dull or inscrutable. Unlike scientists who turn their hand to popular writing, he can claim to have spent the vast majority of his life to date knowing very little about how the universe works.

Tutored by many of the leading scientists in each of the dozens of fields he covers, he has brought to the book some of the latest insights together with an amusingly gossipy tone. His technique was to keep going back to the experts until each in turn was happy, in effect, to sign off the account of their work he had put together. In short, he’s done the hard work for us. Bryson enlivens his accounts of difficult concepts with entertaining historical vignettes. We learn, for example, of the Victorian naturalist whose scientific endeavours included serving up mole and spider to his guests; and of the Norwegian palaeontologist who miscounted the number of fingers and toes on one of the most important fossil finds of recent history and wouldn’t let anyone else have a look at it for more than 48 years.

Bryson has called his book a history, and he has the modern historian’s taste for telling it how it was. Scientists, like all tribes, have a predilection for foundation myths. But Bryson isn’t afraid to let the cat out of the bag. The nonsense of Darwin’s supposed “Eureka!” moment in the Galapagos, when he spotted variations in the size of finch beaks on different islands, is swiftly dealt with. As is the fanciful notion of palaeontologist Charles Doolittle Walcott chancing on the fossil-rich Burgess Shales after his horse slipped on a wet track. So much for clarity and local colour. What about romance? For Bryson this clearly lies in nature’s infinitudes.

The sheer improbability of life, the incomprehensible vastness of the cosmos, the ineffable smallness of elementary particles, and the imponderable counter-intuitiveness of quantum mechanics. He tells us, for example, that every living cell contains as many working parts as a Boeing 777, and that prehistoric dragonflies, as big as ravens, flew among giant trees whose roots and trunks were covered with mosses 40 metres in height. It sounds very impressive. Not all readers will consider it sublime, but it’s hard to imagine a better rough guide to science. · John Waller is research fellow at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine and author of Fabulous Science: Fact and Fiction in the History of Scientific Discovery (OUP)

What has propelled this popular science book to the New York Time’s Best Seller List? The answer is simple. It is superbly written. Author Bill Bryson is not a scientist – far from it. He is a professional writer, and hitherto researching his book was quite ignorant of science by his own admission. “I didn’t know what a proton was, or a protein, didn’t know a quark from a quasar, didn’t understand how geologists could look at a layer of rock on a canyon wall and tell you how old it was, didn’t know anything really,” he tells us in the Introduction. But Bryson got curious about these and many other things: “Suddenly, I had a powerful, uncharacteristic urge to know something about these matters and to understand how people figure them out.” All of us should be lucky to be so curious.

Young children are. That’s why they’re called “little scientists.” New to the world and without inhibitions, they relentlessly ask questions about it. And Bill Bryson’s curiosity led him to some good questions too: “How does anybody know how much the Earth weighs or how old its rocks are or what really is way down there in the center? How can they [scientists] know how and when the Universe started and what it was like when it did? How do they know what goes on inside an atom?” The Introduction also tells us that the greatest amazements for Bryson are how scientists worked out such things. His book is a direct result of addressing these issues. It is superbly written. Popular science writers should study this book.| A Short History of Nearly Everything serves a great purpose for those who know little about science. The deep questions may not necessarily be explicitly presented but many of the answers are.

The reader gets to journey along the paths that led scientists to some amazing discoveries – all this in an extremely simple and enjoyable book. The prose is extraordinarily well written with lively, entertaining thoughts and many clever and witty lines. Consider, for example, Chapter 23 on “The Richness of Being.” It begins: “Here and there in the Natural History Museum in London, built into recesses along the underlit corridors or standing between glass cases of minerals and ostrich eggs and a century or so of other productive clutter, are secret doors – at least secret in the sense that there is nothing about them to attract the visitor’s notice.” This opening sentence really captures the atmosphere of a natural history museum. It is full of vivid descriptions and contains the cleverly constructed, paradoxical phrase “productive clutter.”

The next paragraph begins to make the point: “The Natural History Museum contains some seventy million objects from every realm of life and every corner of the planet, with another hundred thousand or so added to the collection each year, but it is really only behind the scenes that you get a sense of what a treasure house this is. In cupboards and cabinets and long rooms full of close-packed shelves are kept tens of thousands of pickled animals in bottles, millions of insects pinned to squares of card, drawers of shiny mollusks, bones of dinosaurs, skulls of early humans, endless folders of neatly pressed plants. It is a little like wandering through Darwin’s brain.”

And later: “We wandered through a confusion of departments where people sat at large tables doing intent, investigative things with arthropods and palm fronds and boxes of yellowed bones. Everything there was an air of unhurried thoroughness, of people being engaged in a gigantic endeavor that could never be completed and mustn’t be rushed. In 1967, I had read, the museum issued its report on the John Murray Expedition, an Indian Ocean survey, forty-five years after the expedition had concluded. This is a world where things move at their own pace, including the tiny lift Fortey and I shared with a scholarly looking elderly man with whom Fortey chatted genially and familiarly as we proceeded upwards at about the rate that sediments are laid down.” Often Bryson ends a paragraph with an amusing line.

You find very few popular science books so well written. With the exception of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, it is hard to think of even one that is witty. Popular science writers should study this book. “I [Bryson] didn’t know a quark from a quasar . . . “|

Sometimes even quoting writers rather than scientists and original sources, Bryson draws extensively from other books. For example, most of Chapter 21, whose focus is largely on the Burgess Shale fossils and the Cambrian explosion, is taken from Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life. And much of the rest of Chapter 21 is based on works by Richard Fortey and Gould’s other books. The author does not hide this. Titles are cited in the text, chapter notes provide quotes from books, and there is a lengthy bibliography. Given that Bryson in not a scientist, it is surprising how few errors there are in A Short History of Nearly Everything. Here are a couple that the staff at Jupiter Scientific uncovered: On what would happen if an asteroid struck Earth, Bryson writes, “Radiating outward at almost the speed of light would be the initial shock wave, sweeping everything before it.” In reality, the shock wave would travel only at about 10 kilometers per second, which, although very fast, is considerably less than the speed of light of 300,000 kilometers per second. Shortly thereafter, one reads “Within an hour, a cloud of blackness would cover the planet . . . “

It would take a few weeks for this to occur. The book gives the number of cells in the human body as ten-thousand trillion, but the best estimates are considerably less – about 50 trillion. Here’s how one might determine the number. A typical man and a typical cell in the human body respectively weigh 80 kilograms and 4 ×10-9 grams. So there are about (80,000 grams per human)/(4 ×10-9 grams per cell) = 2 ×1013 cells per human, or twenty-trillion cells. By the way, since the number of microbes in or on the human body has been estimated to be one-hundred trillion, people probably have more foreign living organisms in them then cells! In the Chapter “The Mighty Atom”, it is written, “They [atoms] 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 us, it has been suggested – probably once belonged to Shakespeare.” Most of this paragraph is correct, but because atoms are stripped of there electrons in stars, Bryson should have said, “. . . the nuclei of every atom you possess has most likely passed through several stars . . . ” One might be shocked that each of the 6 trillion or so humans on Earth have so many of Shakespeare’s atoms in them. However, Jupiter Scientific has done an analysis of this problem and the figure in Bryon’s book is probably low: It is likely that each of us has about 200 billion atoms that were once in Shakespeare’s body. Bryson also exaggerates the portrayals of some scientists: Ernest Rutherford is said to be an overpowering force, Fred Hoyle a complete weirdo, Fritz Zwicky an utterly abrasive astronomer, and Newton a total paranoiac.

Surely the descriptions of these and other scientists are distorted. From a scientific point of view, most topics are treated superficially. This renders the book of little interest to a scientist.| Here are some examples of witty lines that finish paragraphs: The concluding remarks on Big Bang Nucleosynthesis go: “In three minutes, 98 percent of all the matter there is or will ever be has been produced. We have a universe. It is a place of the most wondrous and gratifying possibility, and beautiful, too. And it was all done in about the time it takes to make a sandwich.” On the Superconducting Supercollider, the huge particle accelerator that was to be built in Texas, Bill Bryson notes, “In perhaps the finest example in history of pouring money into a hole in the ground, Congress spent $2 billion on the project, then canceled it in 1993 after fourteen miles of tunnel had been dug. So Texas now boasts the most expensive hole in the universe.”

Chapter 16 discusses some of the health benefits of certain elements. For example, cobalt is necessary for the production of vitamin B12 and a minute amount of sodium is good for your nerves. Bryson ends one paragraph with “Zinc – bless it – oxidizes alcohol.” (Zinc plays an important role in allowing alcohol to be digested.) On Earth’s atmosphere, the author notes that the troposphere, that part of the lower atmosphere that contains the air we breathe, is between 6 and 10 miles thick. He concludes, “There really isn’t much between you and oblivion.” In talking about the possibility of a sizeable asteroid striking Earth, Bryson at one point writes, “As if to underline just un-novel the idea had become by this time, in 1979, a Hollywood studio actually produced a movie called Meteor (“It’s five miles wide . . . It’s coming at 30,000 m.p.h. – and there’s no place to hide!) starring Henry Fonda, Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, and a very large rock.” From a scientific point of view, most topics are treated superficially. This renders the book of little interest to a scientist, but has certain advantages for the layperson.

In some cases, emphasis is not given to the most important issue. Bryson simply lacks the insight and judgement of a trained scientist. Chapter One on the Big Bang is particularly difficult for the author. There is too much discussion on inflation and on the many-universe theory. Inflation, which is the idea that the space underwent a tremendous stretching at a tiny fraction of a second after “the beginning”, is consistent with astronomical observations, is theoretically attractive but has no confirming evidence yet. The multi-universe theory, which proposes that our universe is only one of many and disconnected from the others, is complete speculation. On the other hand, Bryson neglects events that have been observationally established. Big Bang Nucleosynthesis, in which the nuclei of the three lightest elements were made, is glossed over in one paragraph.

Recombination, the process of electrons combining with nuclei to form atoms, is not covered – an unfortunate omission because it is the source of the cosmic microwave background radiation (When nuclei capture electrons, radiation is given off). Bryson simply refers to the cosmic microwave background radiation as something “left over from the Big Bang”, a description lacking true insight. As another example of misplaced emphasis, much of the chapter entitled “Welcome to the Solar System,” is on Pluto and its discovery and on how school charts poorly convey the vast distances between planets. Although the Sun is not even treated, Bryson ends the discussion with “So that’s your solar system.” Here is another example in which Bryson’s lack of scientific training hurts the content of the book. In Chapter 27 entitled “Ice Time, he discusses as through it happened with certainty the “Snowball Earth.”

It, however, is a very controversial proposal in which the entire planet was engulfed in ice at the end of the Proterozoic Era. The book says, “Temperatures plunged by as much as 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The entire surface of the planet may have frozen solid, with ocean ice up to a half mile thick at high latitudes and tens of yards thick even in the tropics.” While it is true that this period was the most severe ice age ever to transpire on Earth, it is unlikely that the weather became so cold as to create the conditions described in the above quote. Then the chapter on hominid development does the opposite by presenting the situation as highly unknown and debatable. It is true that the fossil record for the transition from apes to Homo sapiens is quite fragmentary and that anthropologists are dividerd over certain important issues such as how to draw the lines between species to create the family tree, how Homo sapiens spread over the globe and what caused brain size to increase.

However, the overall pattern of homonid evolution is understood. The reader gets to journey along the paths that led scientists to some amazing discoveries – all this in an extremely simple and enjoyable book.| Bryson has a nice way of summarizing atoms: “The way it was explained to me is that protons give an atom its identity, electrons its personality.” The number of protons in the nucleus of an atom, also known as the atomic number, determines the element type. Hydrogen has one proton, helium two, lithium three and so on. The electrons of an atom, or more precisely the outermost or valence electrons, determine how the atom binds to other atoms. The binding properties of an atom determines how it behaves chemically. Every important topic in A Short History of Nearly Everything can be found in Jupiter Scientific’s book The Bible According to Einstein, which presents science in the language and format of the Bible. Jupiter Scientific has made available online many sections of this book.

This review, which has been produced by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, is in the public domain, and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged–released October 2004. For comments or questions please contact Ian Johnston.

A Short History of Nearly Everything

The first thing one notices about a new Bill Bryson book in recent years is the disproportionately large size of the author’s name on the cover—bigger than the title by a few orders of magnitude. That’s appropriate, I suppose, for an author who has emerged as North America’s most popular writer of non-fiction, with legions of fans around the world, perhaps even something of a cult figure, who can sell anything on the strength of his name alone. Bryson’s recently published book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, is certainly a departure from what he has written so far. It’s a bold and ambitious attempt to tell the story of our earth and of everything on it. Initially motivated by the most admirable of scientific feelings, intense curiosity about something he admits he knew virtually nothing about, Bryson spent three years immersing himself in scientific literature, talking to working scientists, and travelling to places where science is carried on, so that he might “know a little about these matters and . . . understand how people figured them out” and then produce a book which makes it “possible to understand and appreciate—marvel at, enjoy even—the wonder and accomplishments of science at a level that isn’t too technical or demanding, but isn’t entirely superficial either.”

The result is a big volume recapitulating the greatest story ever told, from the beginnings of the universe, to the physical history of the Earth, to the development and evolution of life here—an attempt to provide, as the title indicates, an all-encompassing and continuous narrative, crammed with information on everything from particle physics to plate tectonics, from cloud formations to bacteria. For all the obvious natural clarity and organization within science, writing well about the subject is not as easy as it may appear. It demands that the writer select an audience and then deliver what he or she has to say in a style appropriate to that readership, in the process risking the loss of other potential readers. Bryson has clearly thought about this point and introduces into writing about science a style very different from, say, the brisk omniscience of Isaac Asimov, the trenchant polemics of Richard Dawson, the engaged contextual scholarship of Stephen Jay Gould, or the leisured and fascinating historical excursions of Simon Winchester (to cite some recent masters of the genre).

He brings to bear on science his impressive talents as a folksy, amusing, self-deprecating spinner of yarns, assuming considerable ignorance in his readers and inviting them to share his newly discovered excitement at all the things he has learned, obviously trying with an atmosphere of cozy intimacy and friendship to ease any fears they may bring to a book about so many unfamiliar things. This feature will almost certainly irritate a great many people who already know a good deal about science (who may feel they are being patronized) and charm many of those who do not. The information is presented here in an often off-beat and amusing and certainly non-intimidating way. Bryson sticks to his resolve not to confront the reader with numbers and equations and much complex terminology. So he relies heavily on familiar analogies to illustrate scientific theories, and these are extremely effective—inventive and illuminating.

There is a wealth of interesting and frequently surprising facts about everything from mites to meteorites, conveyed with a continuing sense of wonder and enjoyment. Bryson delivers well on his promise to provide an account of what we know and (equally important to him) of the enormous amount we still do not know. Bryson is not all that interested, however, in the second part of his announced intention, to explore how we know what we know. He pays little to no attention to science as a developing system of knowledge, to its philosophical underpinnings (hence, perhaps, the omission of any treatment of mathematics) or to the way in which certain achievements in science are important not merely for the “facts” they confirm or reveal but for the way in which they transform our understanding of what science is and how it should be carried out. So for him “how we know” is simply a matter of accounting for those who came up something that turned out to be of lasting value (no wonder he is somewhat baffled by Darwin’s delay in publishing his theory of natural selection—the notion that Darwin’s theory may have presented some important methodological difficulties of which Darwin was painfully aware does not seem nearly as important as Darwin’s mysterious illness).

Bryson is at his very best when he can anchor what he has to say on a particular place and on conversations with particular working scientists there. Here his considerable talents as a travel writer and story teller take over, and the result is an often amusing, surprising, insightful, and always informative glimpse into science as a particular activity carried on by interesting individuals in all sorts of different places. The sections on Yellowstone Park, the Burgess Shale, and the Natural History Museum in London, for example, are exceptionally fine, mainly because we are put in imaginative touch with science in action, we hear directly from the scientists themselves, and our understanding of science is transformed from the knowledge of facts into a much fuller and more satisfying appreciation for a wonderfully human enterprise taking place all around us. Here Bryson provides us with a refreshingly new style in writing about science. Indeed, these passages are so striking in comparison with other parts of the book that one suspects that Bryson’s imagination is far more stimulated by scientists at work than by the results their work produces.

This impression is reinforced by Bryson’s habit of plundering the history of science for amusing anecdotes about interesting characters, obviously something which he finds imaginatively exciting. He’s prepared to interrupt the flow of his main narrative in order to deliver a good story, and routinely moves into a new section with a narrative hook based on a memorable character, a dramatic clash of personalities, or an unexpected location. Many of these stories and characters will be familiar enough to people who know a bit about science already (e.g., the eccentricities of Henry Cavendish, William Buckland, or Robert FitzRoy, the arguments between Gould and Dawkins, the adventures of Watson and Crick, and so on), but Bryson handles these quick narrative passages so well that the familiar stories are still worth re-reading, and there are enough new nuggets to keep reminding the more knowledgeable readers just how fascinating the history of science can be. Not that Bryson is very much interested in linking developments in science to any continuing attention to historical context.

He’s happy enough to refer repeatedly to the context if there’s a good yarn to be had—if not, he’s ready to skim over it or ignore it altogether. This gives his account of developments a distinctly Whiggish flavour, a characteristic which will no doubt upset historians of science. At times, too, this habit of frequent quick raids into the past encourages a tendency to flippant snap judgments for the sake of a jest or some human drama. But given the audience Bryson is writing for and his desire to keep the narrative full of brio, these criticisms are easy enough to overlook. And speaking from my own limited experience in writing about the history of science, I can attest to the fact that once one begins scratching away at the lives of the scientists themselves, the impulse to draw on the wonderful range of the extraordinary characters one discovers is almost irresistible. Bryson’s narrative gets into more serious difficulties, however, when he cannot write from his strengths, that is, when he cannot link what the subject demands to particular people and places.

Here the prose often tends to get bogged down in summaries of what he has been reading lately or inadequate condensations of subjects too complex for his rapid pace. Thus, for example, the parts where his prose has to cope with systems of classifications (for example, of clouds, or bacteria, or early forms of life) the sense of excitement disappears and we are left to wade through a dense array of facts, without much sense of purpose. At such times, Bryson seems to sense the problem and often cranks up the “golly gee” element in his style in an attempt to inject some energy into his account, but without much success. And not surprisingly, the world of particle physics defeats his best attempts to render it familiar and comfortable to the reader, as Bryson concedes in an unexpectedly limp and apologetic admission: “Almost certainly this is an area that will see further developments of thought, and almost certainly these thoughts will again be beyond most of us.”

It’s very curious that Bryson makes no attempt to assist the reader through such passages with any illustrative material, which would certainly have enabled him to convey organized information in a much clearer, more succinct, and less tedious manner. Early on, he lays some of the blame for his ignorance about science on boring school text books, so perhaps his decision to eschew visual aids has something to do with his desire not to produce anything like a school text (although, as I recall, diagrams, charts, and photographs were often the most exciting things about such books). Or perhaps he’s simply supremely confident that his prose is more than enough to carry the load. Whatever the reason, the cost of that decision is unnecessarily high. I suspect reactions to this book will vary widely.

Bryson fans will, no doubt, be delighted to hear the master’s voice again and will forgive the lapses in energy and imaginative excitement here and there in the story. By contrast, many scientists and historians of science will find the tone and the treatment of the past not particularly to their liking. I’ll value the book as a source of useful anecdotes and some excellent writing about scientists at work, but turn to less prolix and better organized accounts to enrich my understanding of our scientific knowledge of the world and its inhabitants. But then again, if my grandchildren in the next few years begin to display some real interest in learning about science, I’ll certainly put this book in front of them.

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