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Putting down Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything"

March 2005 —

I just finished with Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" (© 2003,) and I don't mean that I read the whole book.

I put this one down, and I probably won't pick it back up after I'm done savaging it.

Well, that's a strong word. I tolerated the book, up until the point when I gave up on it. A friend of mine liked it. And it's not terrible. It does have a bit too much of the very-English buffoonery, outrageous by understatement — what they call "droll" humor. No matter. I'm not crazy about the writing style, but okay. I was going to plug my way through it.

But—like an ex-girlfriend or a bad ex-boss—the flaws come into starker contrast when it's over, and "A Short History" irks me now, for specific reasons.

There are two passages that bothered me, and I had to go back and dig them out. They both bother me for the very specific reason that they are erroneous or incomplete — in a book about science meant for the general reader. Unforgiveable.

In a chapter about "Einstein's Universe," Bryson discusses Cepheid variables. A Cepheid is a star in a particular state of near-death, and in its depleted state its luminosity varies. Over the period of days or weeks, a Cepheid will cycle from bright to dark; and it will do so rhythmically.

Bryson says: "By comparing the relative magnitudes of Cepheids at different points in the sky you could work out where they were in relation to each other."

What? Because their luminosity varies in a periodic fashion, you can work out the distances of Cepheids to each other? I racked my brain trying to figure that one, and never could. I started to look at the book askance.

The Cepheids, I find, can indeed function as a sort of "standard candle." But the reason for this is that their eponymous variability is—important detail—correllated to their luminosity. In other words, a Cepheid of a given luminosity will pulsate at a particular rate. Bryson does not include that fact. Serious omission.

The next flaw I found — and I really can't believe I didn't put the book down at this point — concerns a very simple numerical transposition. It doesn't even matter the issue at hand; here's the nut of it: "You can't be certain...whether the nearer light is...a 58-watt bulb that is 37 metres away or a 61-watt light that is 36.5 metres away." I make mistakes. But I don't have an editor. And I haven't published a book purporting to lay down the science for a general readership that needs good science writing.

18 March 2005