I lack the science gene. Any of them. I got through trig and calculus, but was baffled by high school physics, and barely bluffed my way through chemistry for that matter. I depend on the kindness of strangers when it comes to machines, etc.
So it was with some trepidation that I began listening to Bill Bryson’s 2005 A Short History of Nearly Everything. I did so only because The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid had left me laughing so hard in public that I was embarrassed but not so embarrassed as to turn off the iPod. It was that good. So I thought I’d at least give Bryson’s tour of the history of science –which throws quite a lot of science in– a shot.
I was charmed to discover that, like me, Bryson wholly lacks the science gene. Indeed, he may have known even less than I do when he set off to find out how scientists come to know certain things, such as how it is that the earth’s core is a zillion degrees or why there is salt in the ocean but not in the Great Lakes. No matter how little he began with, Bryson has written a simply wondeful introduction to science and the men and omen who have discovered the laws of nature. Along the way you get quite a bit of those laws thrown in in perfectly understandable and indeed funny prose.
My reform proposal: Every ninth grade science course in America ought to devote its first month of classes to listening to and studying A Short History of Nearly Everything. It will provide the overview they will never otherwise get in such a space of time. It will introduce them all to wonderful (and witty) writing and give them a sense of the incredible range of characters that have powered the world’s knowledge forward. It wil thrill almost all of them, including most of them who lack the science gene. It may even encourage those with the dormant gene to somehow wake it.
It is that good.
Listening to Bryson, I am pleased to learn that a vast amount of what we know about how we got here has been learned in the past generation, which means the indifference of my youth was actually a pretty good exercise in cost-benefit calculation. Even better, I am learning about Newton and the hundreds of scientists before and after him who figured out most of what we know about one of the two great questions: How did we get here? (The second great question, “How should we live?”, is, happily, covered by the humanities and history and philosophy, which I do find agreeable.
Send a copy of Bryson’s book to the science teachers in your life. Send one to a school board member in your town. Best yet, if you have a teenager about the house, urge them to give it a listen. I’ve never dared make such a recommendation before, but I think you will find it well founded and well received.