The local Georgetown library has a program this month to get people reading and talking about books we may not otherwise choose. The librarian put out a selection, wrapped in gift bags, to take without looking. Then there will be a book discussion and tea on a Saturday afternoon- which I will sadly miss because I will have left for England. Great program idea.
I chose my book (by feel in the package) as being hardback (which lies open easier when knitting) and big. I now discover I could have picked (but didn’t) a bag containing “One Few over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a thought provoking but less time consuming pick.
Big it was though. Encyclopedic. Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.
Sherlock Holmes (the original) said in the case involving five orange pips, That ” it is necessary that the reasoner should be able to utilise all the facts which have come to his knowledge; and this in itself implies, as you will readily see, a possession of all knowledge, which, even in these days of free education and encyclopaedias, is a somewhat rare accomplishment.” The new Sherlock’s Mind Palace.
And yet once, not so long ago, people thought they could do this! Possess all knowledge, and understand everything. Not so long ago many scientists thought that we pretty much understood the way the world worked and just needed to fill in some details in the great plan.
Bryson has summary chapters about many topics, including for example, the sub-atomic world, the origins of the universe, DNA, and human origins.But I am sure that, careful as he and his editors and advisers are, there are mistakes, ideas glossed over or given too much weight, and necessarily, statements that will be discovered to be in error as years and studies go on.
When my middle daughter was young she loved dinosaurs (no surprise there) and had some children’s books about dinosaurs. When she was six, the idea that their extinction was caused by a meteor collision with earth was first suggested (as Bryson mentions.) A few years later in a children’s science class at UC Berkeley, one of her assignments was to take one of those books and correct its details; though being the person she is, and my daughter, I think that she had already done so! And now her son knows things that were still not corrected, feathers for example, and knows about dinosaurs whose existence was then still undiscovered. He tells me that a dinosaur in the Science Museum is mounted with an incorrect stance, propped on its tail, “because that’s what they used to think.” My other granddaughter is being given by her parents a series of children’s books on the theme of “Boy, were we we wrong about…” (including dinosaurs) That granddaughter’s mother, my youngest daughter, went on a dino dig with Robert Bakker who was espousing the heretical view that dinosaurs were not slow-moving and cold blooded, but warm blooded. And that is just one field!
We can’t know everything. And we can’t even get it right in fields we study! So is it all a waste of time? I hear people say “Everyone has a right to their opinion.” Yet there are facts: they cannot be ignored. There are experts who devote a lifetime to researching, studying and understanding: a top-of-the-head or gut-feeling comment does not carry weight like their statements do. So I will save my “opinion” for issues like whether I prefer cider or beer (cider, as any who know me already know) and I will defer to experts in their own field, on matters as important as Climate Change or as immediately relevant to our family as the stupid and uninformed backlash against life-saving vaccines because of fear of autism (which, at least for our family, has been something to enjoy not fear, though needing accommodations to the neuro-typical world.) Opinions are not all equal. And I will continue to read as much as I can follow of at least the outlines of modern study and the reasons for experts’ consensus.
Bryson’s summary gives an overview of several fascinating areas of human exploration. Like popularizers, he can help us see what we want to explore further and help us to have an educated person’s awareness of modern thought. I thank the librarian, Gillian, for choosing this book for my Blind Date.