13 Feb 2014 No Comments
One of the best layperson’s books on science ever in my opinion has to be:
I should think an eight year old interested in science would be well able to handle this book, particularly if read together with a grown-up. The book begins with cosmology and the description believed most likely to be correct by current science of how the Earth and the Universe that holds it came to be. From there the book shifts to a description of how life came to be and how you and I came to be reading this page.
Most importantly, the book is not primarily to do with scientific facts, but with how we know those facts. Bill Bryson is of course a non physicist. But what I loved about this book is that, remembering being fascinated by science himself as a child, he delights in the how we know every bit as much as what we know itself. The book is very much about the scientific method, and for a non-scientist to capture this in so lively, and poetic, a way is astounding. The book opens with the author’s description of himself as a nine year old looking at a cutaway view of the inside of the Earth “… showing the Earth’s interior as it would look if you cut into the planet with a large knife and carefully withdrew a wedge representing a quarter of its bulk“. He speaks of feeling, as a nine year oldm a real sense of wonder at the thought “How do they know that?!” when he “...couldn’t conceive of how any human mind could work out what spaces thousands of miles below us, that no eye had ever seen and no X-ray could penetrate, could look like and be made of.” He also admits that he was partly drawn to the drawing by the black humour of “… a private image of streams of unsuspecting eastbound motorists in the American plains states plunging over a sudden $4\,000$ mile high cliff running between Central America and the North Pole …”.
An good example of the book’s flavor is his description of the cosmic background microwave radiation, the leftover intense radiation of the Big Bang which, through the Universe’s expansion, has now cooled to three degrees above absolute zero. Bryson notes parenthetically that this radiation, which has been propagating around unabsorbed since the Universe’s beginning, accounts for about 1% of the interference in the VHF television bands. So he goes on: “Tune your television to any channel it doesn’t receive and about 1 percent of the dancing static you see is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang. The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe.”