Across the Universe and Back Home with Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is best known for his amusing travel books (A Walk in the Woods, In a Sunburned Country). But Bryson widens his horizons considerably in his latest work, giving a guided tour of the Universe. A Short History of Nearly Everything (Broadway Books, $27.50) pretty much delivers on the title, taking readers from the Big Bang to the Birth of Man in a scant 543 pages. And unlike physicist Stephen Hawking's acclaimed A Brief History of Time, this is a lively, understandable science book that people will actually open and read after they've purchased it. U.S. News recently chatted with Bryson to find out what his journey taught him.
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U.S. News: Steve Allen used to host this show Meeting of the Minds in which great thinkers from history chatted over dinner. Which of the scientists that you profiled would you not want to eat with?
Bryson: The one that leaps to mind is Hans Geiger who worked with Ernest Rutherford. He helped Rutherford work out the structure of the atom and then returned to Germany and very happily ratted on his Jewish colleagues when Hitler came to power. He seems to have been the most contemptible person.
U.S. News: OK, let's turn it around. Who would you want to have dinner with?
Bryson: It would have to be Newton because he is the most enigmatic and would most benefit from having someone sit down with him. As a complete layperson, he would also be terribly intimidating for someone like me. You would need a real scientist. But a person I would be comfortable with, even if I wouldn't understand most of what he was saying, would be [physicist] Niels Bohr. I think he was a nice human being as well as one of the great scientists of the 20th century. Everybody who worked with him seems to have adored him.
U.S. News: Are there areas of science that really frustrated you or made your eyes bleed?
Bryson: It happened all the time... Sometimes it happened where you would expect it to, with particle physics, for instance. Once you move into the quantum world it becomes impossible to understand unless you speak mathematics. I had this really kindly patient physicist in London who spent a lot of time with me and it made me realize that I would always reach a point where I couldn't grasp it and even if I could grasp it, I couldn't convey it. But some of the other stuff that I thought would be comparatively smooth sailing was also hard to get a grasp of. One was human origins and evolution. It's hard to follow because there is so little agreement. You read a book by paleontologist A and you think you understand it and then you read paleontologist B and you realize none of this matches up with what you read in the previous book.
U.S. News: Did the scientists ever get frustrated with you?
Bryson: The thing I said to these people over and over again was "I'm sorry, could you tell me that one more time? I still don't get it." But quite a number were very gratified that someone from the outside was interested in what they do. The one that springs to mind was the "moss man" from the Natural History Museum in London, one of the world's experts on mosses. People don't come up to him very often, I don't think, and say "Tell me all about what you do." He has this field which he loves and is completely attached to. I can't say it made me wish to become a moss man myself but I did come away with an appreciation for it.
U.S. News: Were there areas where the thinking has dramatically changed in recent decades?
Bryson: I graduated from high school in 1970 and one of the most striking things to me was that almost everything I was taught was wrong, particularly things like plate tectonics. Once you accept that it is an activity that the earth undergoes, it explains all kinds of stuff, such as why marsupials appear in Australia and South America and lots and lots of other things. But if you didn't accept plate tectonicsand it was not widely accepted until the 1970sthat means you had to come up with alternative explanations and virtually all those explanations were wrong. So there is hardly a field of earth history that wasn't in some fundamental way completely misguided.
U.S. News: There been a growing debate among scientist about whether the universe was "intelligently designed." Any thoughts on that from what you've seen?
Bryson: I am not a religious or spiritual person and my inclination is not to go in that direction. But having said that, the one thing I was struck by again and again is that none of this is incompatible with profound religious belief. Any question you ask these scientists, you very quickly get back to a point where God is as good an explanation as anything. If you ask, "Why did life start when it did?" God is as good an explanation as you could come up with. Or why does life exist only on Earth as far as we know? Or why did the Big Bang start when it did? What was going on before that? All these bring you back to what essentially are religious questions. If you are religious and scientific, you've got a universe that is mind blowing.