Book Review and Rant

I know that I’ve ranted here before about how I think much of my time spent in school was really a disservice. People who really understood their subject matter had an amazing opportunity to take my blank canvas of a mind, full of imagination and energy, and impart a fascination for arts, science, math, and so much more. Instead, what I got was the conclusion that math was really boring, science was interesting 7% of the time, and history was all about memorizing dates of events that had no relevance to my life or modern society.

Fortunately, the one thing school couldn’t turn me off to was reading. I’m not a big reader, but that’s something I find humiliating. So I was excited to get a few good books for Christmas, and I set into Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I’m merely a couple chapters into the hefty tome, but I feel comfortable reviewing it already. It’s love at first sight.

I’d like to share a bit of the introduction. Bryson has just finished talking about how a science textbook grabbed his interest as a child, but then seriously let him down when the text accompanying the intriguing illustrations and photos failed to be written in an accessible, interesting, or even comprehensible manner:

It was if [the author] wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable. As the years passed, I began to suspect that this was not altogether a private impulse. There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the real of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.

I now know that there is a happy abundance of science writers who pen the most lucid and thrilling prose… but sadly none of them wrote any textbook I ever used. All mine were written by men (it was always men) who held the interesting notion that everything became clear when expressed as a formula and the amusingly deluded belief that the children of America would appreciate having chapters end with a section of questions they could mull over in their own time. So I grew up convinced that science was supremely dull, but suspecting that it needn’t be, and not really thinking about it at all if I could help it.

A book about science written by a person whose opinion of school science classes couldn’t be more closely aligned with my own? It’s interesting to ponder how my life might have been different if teachers in my many years at school had been more adept at imparting just how fascinating the matter could be. Imagine if a science textbook was something I actually read cover to cover because it was an interesting and enjoyable read.

And it also occurs to me that much of what I learned in science wasn’t even right. I tend to imagine all the planets being pretty close by, having a space perhaps the diameter of the Earth in between us and them. It turns out this is incredibly inaccurate:

Such are the distances, in fact, that it isn’t possible, in any practical terms, to draw the solar system to scale. Even if you added lots of fold-out pages to your textbooks or used a really long sheet of poster paper, you wouldn’t come close. On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over a thousand feet away and Pluto would be a mile and a half distance (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn’t be able to see it anyway.) On the same scale, Proxima Centauri, our nearest star, would be almost ten thousand miles away.

I’ll be sure to share more when I’m done, but so far, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. And if, by chance, you’re a science teacher, you must read this.

One thought on “Book Review and Rant

  1. That was a wonderful book. In fact, you’ve inspired me to dig my copy out of the bookshelf and re-read it!

    Speaking of Bryson, he’s a phenomenal writer. Might I recommend “A Walk in the Woods” (hiking the Appalachian Trail) and “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” (his autobiography)?

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