Tag Archives: Eric Schmidt

Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything

In August I was at the Edinburgh TV festival being lectured by Eric Schmidt about the need to end the divide in the UK society between ‘luvvies’ and ‘boffins’. As Schmidt argued, ‘there’s been a drift to humanities’ with the result, ‘engineering and science aren’t championed’.

This has meant the UK’s been left behind:

‘The UK is home of so many media-related inventions. You invented photography. You invented TV. You invented computers in both concept and practice. (It’s not widely known, but the world’s first office computer was built in 1951 by Lyons’ chain of tea shops.) Yet today, none of the world’s leading exponents in these fields are from the UK’

Brian Cox picked up the theme the next day in a Q&A. He pointed out that while no politician on Newsnight would say ‘I know nothing about economics’ – even though that might be an honest admission –  all too often we hear the same sentiment expressed about science. ‘It should be socially unacceptable to know nothing about science’, he said. (Considering David Cameron claimed last Sunday that the British invented DNA, Brian Cox has got a lot of work to do.)

For me, it was the theme of the festival. So on the train journey I devoured DK’s Science. It’s 500 pages of beautifully illustrated, magazine-sized nuggets and articles. For four hours I didn’t stop, jumping all over the place, scribbling down questions in a notebook.

(I love picture books, and especially those by Doris Kingsley. I have them any number of topics. When I was a primary school teacher, I used to love the school library because it was stacked full of visual, easy to understand non-fiction books.)

I’ve always thought people learn best by going in layers. If you want to learn English history, start with picture books/movies/stories that bring it alive and give you an overview, and then repeat the process in a higher level of complexity (Dimbleby’s 7 Ages of Britain for e.g), and then again and so on.

The next layer of complexity was Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I’ve heard praise for this book from every quarter for years, so I realise I’m very late to the party in saying that it is wonderful. (See Dave’s post earlier this year) Bryson’s book is packed full of wonderful nuggets and little biographies of extraordinary characters.

Here are some of the little facts I learned:

  • The average adult is carrying around 2 kg of dead skin
  • If the history of the planet is 24 hours, humans appear on the scene 1 minute and 17 seconds before midnight
  • Eighty per cent of the world biomass are microbes
  • Because of the Earth’s spin the west coast of the Pacific is a foot and a half higher than the east coast (like the little wave of water you’d get if you suddenly tugged a tray of water towards you)
  • Lightning heats the air to 28,000 C, which is hotter than the surface of the Sun
  • An atom’s nucleus is tiny in proportionate to the rest of the atom. ‘Like a fly in a cathedral’ as it has been described, except the fly is thousands of times heavier than the cathedral.
  • The North Star might have burnt out 680 years ago
  • Unlike most illustrations in science text books, the planets are extraordinarily far away from each other. If the Earth was the size of a pea, Jupiter would be 300 metres away. Seen from the surface of Pluto, the sun is a pinprick in the night sky.
  • Mastadon means ‘nipple teeth’
  • To see the atoms in a drop of water with the naked eye, you’d have to magnify the drop until it was 24 km across.
  • If you managed to drill a hole to the centre of the earth and dropped a brick down it, (presuming you could dig such a hole, and that our brick wouldn’t incinerate long before reaching the centre of something that wouldn’t melt). You’d expect the brick to take 45 mins to drop the 6,370 km to the centre, but in fact it would slow as the gravitational effect of the mass above the brick took effect, until by the time it got to the centre it would be floating.
I also learnt that far from being ‘invented’ by the British, DNA wasn’t even discovered by Watson & Crick in 1953. In fact it had been known about since 1869 when it was discovered by Friedrich Miescher, a Swiss scientist, who was looking at pus in surgical bandages. Rather, Watson (who was actually American) & Crick worked out it’s molecular structure – still, I’m happy to admit, quite an achievement.
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